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The origins of a 'Dumb Waiter' lift

The origins of a 'Dumb Waiter' lift

However you write it, ‘dumb waiter’ or ‘dumbwaiter’, the origins of the term are puzzling. The name of this small service lift and the history of how it came into being are interesting topics.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of  dumb waiters, let us explain ... it is a small elevator used to bring food up to a restaurant from kitchens below, and to take dirty dishes back down from the dining room – a hidden and essential device in almost every mansion, café and restaurant. These hardwearing little service lifts were designed to carry goods, not people, between floors.

Many people might not know it, but this device has been used for thousands of years. The first recorded use of lifts such as these dates back to around 200BC, during the age of the Romans. An architect described installing a dumbwaiter to allow the movement of goods.  

The term 'dumbwaiter' came to be because the lift was first used in large houses that had their kitchens and household staff in the basements or the ‘servants quarters’. These servants would use the lift to take food and dishes upstairs to the dining room and back down again as the go-between from kitchen to restaurant, allowing noise and cooking odour to be isolated from the patrons. The origins of the term are simply that this lift was a way of having your own silent waiter, not seen and not heard.

The mini-lift may have been silent but it did not remain dumb, spreading its commercial uses to carrying correspondence, medication within a pharmacy or hospital, a keg of beer from the cool basement to the bar and even the special "bullion lift" in The Bank Of England designed to carry coins and gold bars.

 Matot Rope Pulled Dumbwaiter, circa 1940 - By Duffymatot - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0Many early dumbwaiters were simple human powered devices, which looped a rope around a pulley or rafter which could be controlled manually (early example shown left). A service lift such as this is still used today at one of Thomas Jefferson's estates. Older versions even had a speaking tube next to them, which enabled waiters to talk to chefs in the kitchens. These then evolved with the progress of the industrial revolution, with electric motors being added in the 1920s.

In 1957, Harold Pinter made the term infamous by writing the single act play entitled ‘The Dumb Waiter’,which has subsequently been described as "Small but perfectly formed”[1]. Not surprisingly, the action all takes place in a dingy basement kitchen. In the back of the room is a dumbwaiter, which delivers occasional mysterious food orders. The characters and the invisible food senders communicate via the dumbwaiter's "speaking tube" and a baffling story unravels.[2]

As we plough through the 21st Century, this kitchen lift is still alive and well and in most modern, chic bars, restaurants, clubs and pubs – still acting as a silent and unseen ‘waiter’. It becomes a food lift that is a reliable workhorse and essential to catering businesses arranged on more than one floor. 

Where next for the tru A Stannah Microlift in a townhouse in Spitalfields London was featured on the Channel 4 programme ‘Grand Designs’sty old service lift, you may ask? It seems that more and more home owners have started to view them as domestic lifts - the 'must have' new gadget in kitchens. Our Butler lifts are installed in homes of all sizes, with some owned by Royals and celebrities.

Gone are the days when a servant would haul a rope and pulley to get piping hot meals through to the dining room. 20th-century product changes means the introduction of structures, heated cabins, state of the art intercoms and safety locks, as well as the option to have a lift stop off in between or skip floors on its journey. Today’s Stannah Butler lifts are electrically driven, highly controlled lifts supplied in their own structure and have finishes that are attractive enough to make this little star into an interior design feature.

With townhouses becoming a trend - architects and builders recognise the need to be able to move items between floors without carrying heavy or precarious items up multiple flights of stairs. House developers seeking to add buyer incentive to their homes, will add a Butler lift. In fact, it is increasingly common in today's housing market, because having one adds value to a home. It is almost always possible to install a service lift into an existing home, although for the easiest installation it is ideally added into the house as it is being built.

At Stannah we’ve installed more than 40,000 Butler lifts in the last 40 years so there isn't anything we don’t know about this little powerhouse!