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According to the <i>Oxford English Dictionary</i>, the term dumb-waiter first appeared in the English language in 1749, referring to 'an article of dining room furniture intended to dispense with the services of a waiter at the table.' Its first American usage in 1847, however, includes mention of a system of pulleys and weights that allowed food and drink to be easily transported from a kitchen to floors above.

Thus the term refers to two distinct forms. The first, a piece furniture that is static, privatizing, and decorative in its function; the other, a technology that is dynamic, utilitarian, and ultimately democratizing.

Genealogy of the Dumb-waiter

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Illustration of Konrad Keyser's wind-powered elevator, as printed in his ca. 1400 <i>Bellifortis</i> (Gavois, 50)

Lifting mechanisms that employ various pulleys and weights can be dated back to the ancient Egyptians, but personal lifts associated with the function of a dumb-waiter are only a few centuries old. One of the earliest recorded applications of elevator technology within the domestic sphere comes - not surprisingly - from Versailles, the playground of the French royals. In 1744, Louis XV installed a personal lift between the <i>petits appartements</i> of the favored Duchesse de Châteauroux to the royal bedchamber for rapid and discrete transportation. Unfortunately, the Duchesse soon fell from favor and her successor, the Marquise de Pompadour, had the 'gift' removed (Gavois, 68).

The same century in France saw use of the <i>table voletes</i>, or <i>tables machinées</i>, that surprised and delighted guests at elegant dinners. A contemporary description of these 'flying tables' states that they:

<blockquote> lifted all at once by a machine in such a way that the surface of the table, the frame as well as its attachments, is composed by a section of the raised floor...When the guests enter the dining room, there is not the least sign of a table; all that can be seen is a uniform floor that is adorned by a rose at its center. At the slightest nod, the leaves are retracted under the floor, and a table laden with food makes its sudden ascent, flanked by four servants emerging through the four openings.(el-Khoury, 62, citing Bonnet in Grimod de La Reynière, Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent, and Bonnet 1978:64-65) </blockquote>

This spectacle spared no economy and emphasized lavish domestic service. Indeed, servants literally sprout from the ground with sumptuous meals at hand. Descriptions of the performance, often seen not only by the diners, but also the lower classes who crowded the party's circumference, would then circulate among French society in the form of printed pamphlets.

From the Royals to the Bourgeoisie

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"The Dumb Waiter", from <i>Harper's Weekly</i>, 1874, shows one of the many early forms of the stationary dumb-waiter.

Employment of the term dumb-waiter, however, proliferates in the mid nineteenth-century and through the early twentieth, when Europeans and Americans struggled to make sense of dramatic socioeconomic shifts that gave rise to the bourgeoisie and the democratization of fine dining. Early accounts of dumb-waiters, those furnishings upon which plates and glasses were stacked, often refer to the private homes from which the 'waiter' was slowly disappearing.

For example, an engraved illustration from the <i>Harper's Weekly</i> Supplement of September 1874 entitled "Dumb-Waiter" shows a large taxidermied bear standing in servitude, snarl frozen on his face, waiting to serve champagne from a silver platter. The accompanying article explains that the creature belonged to Lord Suffield, who shot it while accompanying the Prince of Wales on a Russian hunting trip - an activity "that involves fatigue and danger, and requires endurance and courage." The analogous relationship between animal and servant could not be more clear. The fearsome wild animal, conquered in an act of courage, has been literally domesticated. And though the bear flashes his teeth as if ready to let out a mighty roar, Suffield successfully renders it silent, or 'dumb.' Harper's readers must have found it amusing - indeed it is - that the Lord displayed such impressive power over a piece of mere furniture - especially one that was beginning to find its way out of royal residences and into the homes of the well-to-do.

As the upper middle-class expanded, crowding into urban spaces, those households increasingly reconciled the disappearance of the waiter from the domestic dining room by re-situating the servant as a nuisance, an assault against fast-disappearing privacy. E. Cobham Brewer's <i>Dictionary of Phrase and Fable</i> explains that dumb-waiters are so-called because "it answers all the purposes of a waiter, and is not possessed of an insolent tongue." For respectable bourgeois households, domestic service was a double-edged sword. Keeping up appearances required the use of servants, many of whom belonged to the lower classes. Thus, 'cultured' private spaces were in constant danger of being penetrated by the 'vulgar' public (Fahrni, 69-70).

Elevator Technology

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Elisha Otis reveals his safety elevator at New York's Crystal Palace Exhibition, 1853 (Gavois, 82).

Elevator technology had a profound impact on the shaping of the modern industrial city: both businesses and homes grew vertically at astounding speed. As floors stacked upon floors, elevators moved people and goods between them with minimal effort.

The name most widely known and closely associated with the invention of the modern day elevator is undoubtedly that of Elisha Otis, founder of Otis elevator company. Elisha revolutionized elevation technology with the invention of the first passenger elevator with a fail safe safety mechanism (Peterson, 12). After years working for as a lift technician for a bed frame company, Otis received a request to design a safe passenger elevator for a store that suffered a horrific accident with their primitive elevator system (Otis, 32). In a momentous display in 1853, Otis presented his first passenger elevator to the public at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition, cementing his place in history as the inventor of the first useable passenger elevator (Gavois, 83).

Mechanics of the Dumb-waiter

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Patent for "Improvement in Elevators" submitted February 3, 1875, by Charles H. Guiles of Chicago, Illinois.

While passenger elevators increased in complexity, the dumb-waiter (sometimes referred to as a hand-hoist) remained relatively simple. Patents dating to the 1870s show that men in urban areas the country were already working to improve the mechanism. United States patent no. 160183, submitted by Charles H. Guiles, includes a carefully drawn detail of counterweights, bells and cranks installed in an interior building shaft. At the bottom of the apparatus rests a platform that is lifted by turning a crank attached to a belt. A counterweight then steadily drops until - ding - the platform reaches the desired floor.

Static to Dynamic

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E. Brewer's 1888 advertisement in the New York City directory for small lifts, including dumb-waiters and personal elevators.

The mechanized dumb-waiter, the form perhaps more familiar to us today, became ubiquitous in the tall apartment buildings that Otis's inventions allowed, but the designs for these living spaces and their subsequent popularity are largely attributed to French architect Calvert Vaux. In an 1857 presentation to the American Institute of Architects, he revealed "Parisian Buildings," a new apartment building with generous spaces and amenities, including a dumb-waiter that connected the basement, pantry and service areas (Cromley, 28-31).

But the American bourgeoisie did not adopt the new forms of domestic spaces so readily, and anxieties about their shrinking private sphere often surfaces in contemporary descriptions of the small lifts. A 1896 article from <i>Harper's Weekly</i> that describes the 'new' New York apartment building desperately reassures readers that their shrinking living spaces are boons and not disappointments, but in doing so only reiterates impulses to safeguard their privacy and block out the encroaching city:

<blockquote> The rented house of the first half of the century was larger than it has become, but it was a mere empty box, after all—usually it was a part of a monotonous row of such boxes. Now such dwellings are tastefully designed, and an effort is made to give each an individual character...The laundryman long ago joined the letter-carrier, butcher, milkman, grocer, and baker in their periodical visits to the basement door; and whenever madame shuts up her house—all barred and bolted and chained as it has been by the builders—she turns it over to a sort of care-taking or watchman's company (Ralph, 0643a). </blockquote>

The New (French) American Home

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Calvert Vaux's Parisian Buildings design, as printed in <i>Harper's Weekly</i> December 19, 1857.

The "Parisian" apartment wasn't the only high density living space finding ubiquity in the American city. New York tenement buildings, consisting of small two to four room units stacked six stories high, carried the stigma of poverty and disease. Buildings that catered to tenants of all economic backgrounds soon proliferated, and the public identified the specific amenities belonging to each with either European sensibility or ethnic squalor.

For example, the 1874 "cheap flat" design published in an 1874 issue of <i>Scribner's Monthly</i> devoted little precious space to public stairways and lobbies, nor service stairs or dumb-waiters, because tenants would be lower class. Buildings for the upper-middle class, however, carefully incorporated designs that ensured the separation of service routes from those intended for tenants and their guests. The smaller living spaces that the Americans bourgeoisie reluctantly accepted only increased their desire to maintain psychological, if not spatial, distance from servants (Cromley, 84, 88-90).

In her book, <i>Alone Together</i>, Elizabeth Collins Cromely explains that:

<blockquote> For apartment-house designer, circulation questions split into two kinds - public paths of movement (for tenants, guests, and servants), and movement inside the private apartment unit. Problems of public circulation in apartment buildings involved the arrangement of stairways, elevators, lobbies, corridors, and dumbwaiters (87). </blockquote>

The distance narrowed between private and public, upper class and lower, efficiency and service.


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A commercial dumbwaiter still visible in New York's Yonah Schimmel knish bakery, founded in 1910.

The use of the home dumb-waiter subsided as European and American families settled into the new social mores of the twentieth-century. The middle-class spread, domestic service (as well as the need for service areas) all but disappeared, and the psychological barriers between public and private spaces came down. And while their practical function continues to find use in commercial environments, the domestic dumb-waiter is largely a thing of the past.

Works Consulted

Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham. <i>Dictionary of phrase and fable ; giving the derivation, source, or origin of common phrases, allusions, and words that have a tale to tell</i>. Philadelphia : Lippincott ; London : Cassell, [1894].

Cromley, Elizabeth C. <i>Alone Together : a history of New York’s early apartments</i>. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1990.

"The Dumb-Waiter." <i>Harper's Weekly</i>, Supplement, (Oct. 31, 1984): 905.

el-Khoury, Rodolphe. "Delectable Decoration: Taste and Spectacle in Jean Francois De Bastide's La Petite Maison." In <i>Taste and Nostalgia</i>, edited by Allen S. Weiss, 49-62. New York : Lusitania Press, 1977.

Fahrni, Magda. "'Ruffled' Mistresses and 'Discontented' Maids : Respectability and the Case of Domestic Service, 1880-1914," <i>Labour/Le Travail</i>, 39 (Spring, 1997): 69-97.

Gavois, Jean. <i>Going Up : an informal history of the elevator from the Pyramids to the present</i>. New York : Otis Elevator Co., 1983.

Guiles, Charles H. Patent No. 160183. Washington, DC : U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, 1875.

Hanson, Julienne. <i>Decoding Homes and Houses</i>. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Kowsky, Francis R. <i>Country, Park, & City : The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux</i>. New York ; Cambridge : Oxford University Press, 1998.

Krueger, Christine L., ed. <i>Functions of Victorian Culture at the Present Time</i>. Athens : Ohio University Press, 2002.

Otis Brothers & Co. <i>Otis Brothers & Co. Manufacturers of Standard Hydraulic Passenger and Freight Elevators</i>. New York, N.Y. : Otis Brothers & Co., 1886.

Otis Elevator Company. <i>The First One Hundred Years</i>. New York: Otis Elevator Company, 1953.

Petersen, L. A. (Leroy A.). <i>Elisha Graves Otis (1811-1861) and his influence upon vertical transportation</i>. New York : The Newcomen Society of England [American branch], 1945.

Pinter, Harold. “The Caretaker ; and, The Dumb Waiter : two plays”. New York : Grove Press, Inc., 1965.

Ralph, Julian. "The City House of To-Day." <i>Harper's Weekly</i>, (June 26, 1896): 0643a.

Read, Alice Gray. “Monticello’s Dumbwaiters.” <i>Journal of Architectural Education</i> (1984-), Vol. 48, No. 3 (Feb., 1995): 168-175.

Vaux, Calvert. "Parisian Buildings for City Residents." <i>Harper's Weekly</i>, (Dec. 19, 1857): 809.

Vogel, Robert M. <i>Vertical Transportation in Old Back Bay, a museum case study : the acquisition of a small residential hydraulic elevator</i>. Washington, D.C. : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.