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The History of Dumbwaiters

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

For those of you unaware of dumb waiters, let us explain ... it's a small lift (most often waist-height) 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 hard-wearing little service lifts are designed to carry goods, not people, between floors.

Why's it called a dumbwaiter?


The term 'dumbwaiter' came to be as 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 the kitchen to the restaurant, allowing noise and cooking odor 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.


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]


Over the years the mini-lift may have been silent but it didn't 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.


Early dumbwaiters


Many were simple human-powered devices, which looped a rope around a pulley or rafter which could be controlled manually (an early example is shown left). A service lift like 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.

Modern dumbwaiters

In the 21st Century, this service 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's become a reliable workhorse and essential to catering businesses arranged on more than one floor.


20th-century product changes mean 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.


Increasingly developers and homeowners have started to view them as domestic lifts - the 'must-have' for kitchens. Our Hoistlifts are installed in homes, bars, restaurants, etc.


Today’s Elite hoist 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.  Elite install lifts over Northern Ireland.

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