The humble serving trolley is a 20th-century piece of furniture, which owes its existence to the changing social scene and different lifestyles in Britain after World War 1.
The history of the serving trolley begins soon after World War 1, when it was introduced to help out middle-class housewives beset by the sudden shortage of domestic servants. Before this time, food was carried between the kitchen and the dining room - which were often far apart on different floors - by the butler and footmen, or, in smaller households, a maid.
At first, trolleys were made of oak or mahogany, to match the dining-room decor, and were based on several other pieces of furniture These included the butler's tray, a box tray that stood on a portable, folding stand; the side buffet, a two-tiered stand that stood by the sideboard and carried plates and other china; and the dumbwaiter, a tiered stand for drinks, glasses, cheese and sweetmeats left by the table for guests to help themselves after the servants had withdrawn.
Serving trolleys were not so widely used in town houses, where kitchens and dining rooms were usually on different levels, but they proved ideal for suburban homes and small flats. The passion for space saving that was a constant theme of design between the wars inspired a number of trolleys that would convert into dining, tea or card tables.
GLASS AND STEEL
While wooden trolleys were the mainstream choice of the 1920s and 1930s, tubular steel and glass ones were used in fashionable restaurants, night-clubs and homes by the mid-1930s. The look suited art deco and modernist interiors, while their practical qualities they were heat and damp resistant, hygienic and easy to clean - also appealed.
Firms such as PEL and Cox Ltd made them in great numbers, in a wide range of shapes oval, circular and square. The typical finish was chromed steel and tinted glass, but frames were also cellulose-sprayed in gilt, bronze or aluminium, or enamelled in different colours while the trays could be oak, veneered
plywood, walnut, linoleum, coloured vitrolite or Bakelite. Some were sold individually while others came with matching table and chairs.
Later in the 1930s, as tubular steel began to reach a wider market, the fashionable turned to the extravagant bentwood work of the Finn, Alvar Aalto, and the plywood creations of the Englishman, Gerald Summers, marketed by his company, Makers of Simple Furniture.
Some 1930s trolleys, whether made for the home or for restaurants, can be very stylish, but the majority are plain, utilitarian pieces, and bought for use rather than ornament.
They needn't be used just for serving food; they can be used as side tables, or a handy place to stash away books, magazines and knick-knacks. Two- and three-tier trolleys can be used for a TV and VCR or hi-fi equipment, or pressed into service as mobile plant stands.
Designer pieces may turn up in special art deco auctions, and the better chrome and steel ones in specialist art deco shops, but the best place to look for a serviceable serving trolley is in a general second-hand furniture store.
OLD AND NEW
Steel trolleys are still made, many of them to original designs from the 1930s. The right date, fortunately, isn't that important. Most of the tubular steel trolleys you will find on the market cost around the same, regardless of date, providing they are in good condition.
To justify top prices, a trolley should be undamaged and complete. Wonky wheels, cracked or split trays - the veneered plywood often used make a trolley's tiers was vulnerable to hot water spillage - missing or unsympathetically replaced screws, or rubbed chrome will all depress the price of a trolley.
Not strictly fakes, nor even reproductions, steel and glass art deco trolleys are often still being made today by the same companies that marketed the originals. These new models aren't easy to distinguish from 1 930s ones, except in terms of the wear and tear they have suffered. Prices are about the same for old and new.