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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Furniture > Our Opinion: Dumbwaiter

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Dumbwaiter Furniture

 The dumbwaiter, a peculiarly British piece of furniture, was introduced in the 18th century to prevent servants from eavesdropping on the gossip, intrigue and scandal of their masters.
 The art of conversation was considered a great accomplishment in the Georgian period, and the romantic, political and business affairs of friends and acquaintances were all considered fair game for after-dinner gossip, sarcasm and wit. Dumbwaiter Furniture

 The presence of servants tended to discourage this indulgence, and led, around 1720, to the introduction of a new piece of furniture, the dumbwaiter. This was basically a tripod table on castors with the central stem extended up through the table top to support one or two smaller, revolving trays.

 The dumbwaiter was in just about universal use in British society by the end of the 18th century. Despite a short vogue in France and Germany, it remained essentially a British piece. Sometimes it was wheeled in at the end of the meal, piled high with sweetmeats, fruit and cheese, for the diners to help themselves; sometimes it sat by the table for all of an informal breakfast or supper, and held glasses, plates, cutlery and wine as well as food.


 The trays were usually cut very thin from a single piece of timber, and had decorative raised rims to prevent things from sliding off as the revolved. The rims were often simple mouldings, though some were elaborately carved. Fret-cut galleries were popular in the middle of the century, as were ones made of tiny turned spindles with a moulded top rail.
The fancier types of dumbwaiter were made by skilled cabinetmakers, while more simple ones were the province of turners.

 The central column was almost always turned and ended in a tripod base with cabriole legs. The top tier sat on flanges at the top of the column, though sometimes this was extended through it to end in a finial.

Dumbwaiter Furniture

 In the Regency period, concave, square-sectioned legs, usually reeded, supplanted the earlier cabriole styles, while the turned central column was sometimes replaced by straight-sided, slightly tapering pillars, with simple mouldings set at widely-spaced intervals. Sometimes the central column between the trays was replaced by three or four slender columns set at regular intervals around the edge. Brass galleries were another innovation.

 During Victoria's reign, changes in etiquette made dumbwaiters redundant, and they haven't been particularly popular - except with collectors - this century, although a few have been made as period pieces. Eavesdropping servants may be a thing of the past, but dumbwaiters still earn their place in a room as elegant and handy side tables or display stands.


 Tripod feet are usually quite plain, as dumbwaiters were meant as pieces of working furniture. Any added carving tends to increase the value of a piece, as does a well-made gallery around the trays. On the best pieces, the turned columns that separate the trays are of diminishing diameter the higher you go.

 One 19th-century introduction that increases a dumbwaiter's appeal is a telescopic action, where the central column collapses into itself so the tiers become a single table-top. For obvious technical reasons, these dumbwaiters always have straight-sided columns and trays of the same diameter. Other variations you may come across include dumbwaiters with their base formed as a wine-cooler; Regency examples with trays of equal size separated by thin brass columns at the edge; trays with hinged flaps; and trays with shallow, turned recesses for plates and glasses.


 Virtually all 18th-century dumbwaiters were made of solid mahogany. Later ones may have brass fittings, while some Regency examples are all in rosewood. They generally had three, sometimes two, and rarely four layers. The lowest tray, which was invariably the widest, could be anything from 60cm/2ft to 90cm/3ft in diameter, and more or less matched the spread of the tripod legs.


 The best way of dating a dumbwaiter is by its style; two tiers were more popular in the Regency, and straight-edged columns are Regency or later. Splayed, reeded legs replaced cabriole legs with pad or ball-and-claw feet towards the end of the 18th century. Before the 1770s castors were made of leather, but later ones were almost always of brass. Until 1790, the castors were always attached to a separate block, with the grain running the opposite way to that on the feet.

 Georgian trays were usually cut from one piece of wood, sometimes two, fitted together with a tongue and groove joint. They always revolved. If a tray is fixed, suspect a later alteration or that the tray has warped.

 Although fairly common in the 18th and early 19th century, dumbwaiters are quite rare today. When they went out of fashion, many were converted into more valuable tripod tables, either by a marriage between the tripod base and a circular top from elsewhere, or, where the lower tray was large enough, by removing the top layers and filling the hole in the centre. A filled centre on a two-tier dumbwaiter indicates that a third layer has been removed, probably because of damage.


Furniture 1876
Furniture 1876
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