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A dumbwaiter also known as a lazy waiter (Speiseaufzug) in the oldest restaurant in Munich, the Hundskugel, with the hand-pulled cart in the "UP" position and only the rope visible

A dumbwaiter is a small freight elevator or lift intended to carry food. Dumbwaiters found within modern structures, including both commercial, public and private buildings, are often connected between multiple floors. When installed in restaurants, schools, hospitals, retirement homes or in private homes, the lifts generally terminate in a kitchen.[1][2]

The term seems to have been popularized in the United States in the 1840s, after the model of earlier "dumbwaiters" now known as serving trays and lazy Susans.[3] The mechanical dumbwaiter was invented by George W. Cannon, a New York City inventor. Cannon first filed for the patent of a brake system (US Patent no. 260776) that could be used for a dumbwaiter on January 6, 1883.[4] Cannon later filed for the patent on the mechanical dumbwaiter (US Patent No. 361268) on February 17, 1887.[5] Cannon reportedly generated a vast amount of royalties from the dumbwaiter patents until his death in 1897.[6]


A simple dumbwaiter is a movable frame in a shaft, dropped by a rope on a pulley, guided by rails; most dumbwaiters have a shaft, cart, and capacity smaller than those of passenger elevators, usually 45 to 450 kg (100 to 992 lbs.)[2] Before electric motors were added in the 1920s, dumbwaiters were controlled manually by ropes on pulleys.[1]

Early 20th-century building codes sometimes required fireproof dumbwaiter walls and self-closing fireproof doors and mention features such as buttons to control movement between floors and locks on doors preventing them from opening unless the cart is stopped at that floor.[7] Dumbwaiter lifts in London were extremely popular in the houses of the rich and privileged. Maids would use them to deliver laundry to the laundry room from different rooms in the house. This obviated carrying handfuls of dirty washing through the house, saving time and preventing injury.[8]

A legal complaint about a Manhattan restaurant's dumbwaiter in 1915, which also mentions that food orders are shouted up and down the shaft, describes its operation and limitations as follows:

[There is] ... great play between the cart of the dumb-waiter and the guides on which it runs, with the result that the running of the cart is accompanied by a loud noise. The rope which operates the cart of the dumb-waiter runs in a wheel with a very shallow groove, so that the rope is liable to and does at times slip off. ... The cart has no shock absorbers at the top, so that when it strikes the top of the shaft or wheel there is a loud report. ... [T]he ropes of the dumb-waiter strike such wall at frequent intervals with a loud report. ... [T]he dumb-waiter is often negligently operated, by running it faster than necessary, and by letting it go down with a sudden fall.[9]

More recent dumbwaiters can be more sophisticated, using electric motors, automatic control systems, and custom freight containers of other kinds of elevators.[10] Recently constructed book lifts in libraries and mail or other freight transports in office towers may be larger than many dumbwaiters in public restaurants and private homes, supporting loads as heavy as 450 kg (1000 lbs).[citation needed]

Regulations governing construction and operation[edit]

Building codes have regulated the construction and operation of dumbwaiters in parts of North America since the 19th century.[2] Modern dumbwaiters in the United States and Canada must comply[citation needed] with American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) codes and, therefore, have features similar to those of passenger elevators.[11] The construction, operation and usage of dumbwaiters varies widely according to country.

In history[edit]

Margaret Bayard Smith wrote that former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson had kept dumbwaiters at both the White House and his Monticello estate whenever she visited him at both places.[12] Smith also wrote that these dumbwaiters were built to reduce the number of servants who could be near dining rooms, thus having more privacy in conversations which at times contained sensitive information which could have been leaked outside the White House.[12] After defecting from the Soviet underground in 1938, Whittaker Chambers gave a last stash of stolen documents to his nephew-in-law, Nathan Levine, who hid them in a dumbwaiter in his mother's house in Brooklyn. A decade later, Chambers asked his nephew to retrieve them (which Chambers referred to as his "life preserver"). Handwritten and typewritten papers therein came from Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White (and became known as the "Baltimore Documents"). Microfilm contained therein was subpoenaed and sensationalized (misnamed the "Pumpkin Papers" in the press) by Richard M Nixon for HUAC.[13]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In Season 3, Episode 13 of Hogan's Heroes, Cpl. LeBeau (Robert Clary) uses a dumbwaiter to access a German banquet room and steal valuable information ahead of a planned explosion.
  • In Season 3, Episode 2 of The Simpsons, a talking statue of Thomas Jefferson tells Lisa the dumbwaiter is one of his important life accomplishments.
  • In the movie Home Alone 3, Alex Pruitt played by Alex D. Linz uses a dumbwaiter in his home to escape his home and against the criminals trying to catch him.
  • In Season 2, Episode 6 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, evidence against the defendant of a criminal trial related to a diamond heist is found in his apartment's dumbwaiter.
  • In The 2003 movie Duplex, a dumbwaiter is used to illegally access an upstairs apartment.



  1. ^ a b George R. Strakosch (1998). The Vertical Transport Handbook. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998. ISBN 0-471-16291-4.
  2. ^ a b c Harry Robert Cullmer and Albert Bauer (1912). Elevator Shaft Construction. New York: W.T. Comstock Company, 1912. p. 30. dumbwaiter. Limited Preview, Google Books, accessed August 26, 2008.
  3. ^ Quinion, Michael. World Wide Words: "Lazy Susan". 24 Apr 2010. Accessed 11 Aug 2013.
  4. ^ United States. Patent Office (1883). American Architect and Architecture, Volume 13. Boston: J. R. Osgood & Company, 1883. p. 11. Limited Preview, Google Books', accessed October 30, 2012.
  5. ^ United States. Patent Office (1887). Official gazette of the United States Patent Office, Volume 39, Issues 1-4. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1887. p. 252. Limited Preview, Google Books, accessed October 30, 2012.
  6. ^ J.H. Beers & Co (1897). Commemorative biographical record of Dutchess County, New York. Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1897. p. 258., retrieved October 30, 2012.
  7. ^ Anthony Avillo (2002). Fireground Strategies. Tulsa: PennWell Books, 2002. ISBN 978-0-87814-840-0.
  8. ^ "Dumbwaiter Lifts | Dumb Waiter Lifts for Restaurants, Hotels & Retail".
  9. ^ System, National Reporter; Superior Court (new York), New York (State); Court Of Appeals, New York (State); Supreme Court, New York (State); Company, West Publishing (1916). "DARR V. COHEN" (print and Web). New York Supplement, National Reporter System, New York (State) Superior Court. New York: West Publishing Company, 1916. 158 (c. 3): 325. Retrieved 2008-08-26. Cases argued and determined in the Court of Appeals, Supreme and lower courts of record of New York State, with key number annotations. Via Google Books. (Original from the University of California. Digitized August 3, 2007.)
  10. ^ "ACE Lifts | Nationwide Dumbwaiter Lifts, Installs & Repair 01244 525999". 2 May 2019.
  11. ^ See "ASME Product Catalogue". ASME. Archived from the original on 2007-12-26. Retrieved 2008-08-26. ASME A17.1 covers safety for new elevators; A17.2, elevator inspection; A17.3, safety for existing elevators; and A17.4, emergency procedures, including those applying to modern dumbwaiters.
  12. ^ a b "Dumbwaiters in Place of Servants".
  13. ^ Chambers, Whittaker (1952). Witness. New York: Random House. pp. 799 (total). LCCN 52005149.

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