Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Dumbwaiter Serves as a Genius Idea

Object name: Serving Table, or Dumbwaiter
Object ID: 1900.27

The dining experience at Wilton ranged from practical, everyday meals, to large dinner parties or celebrations.  In the mid -eighteenth century, having a specific place for such an occurrence was considered an absolute necessity in every prominent, fashionable house.  Since the dining room is the second most elaborate room at Wilton, after the parlor, it was customary to hold dinners for visiting guests in this space.

Breakfast was an informal meal and typically occurred between seven and ten o’clock in the morning. The buffet style meal consisted of rolls, biscuits, cold meats, coffees, teas, and chocolate.  Dinner was a much more formal meal; typically occurring between two and four o’clock in the afternoon. The meal could last hours and up to several courses could be served, including dishes such as meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, pies, rolls and wines.

Since kitchens were considered to be fire hazards and an annoyance, due to odors from supplies and trash, their locations were characteristically set away from the main house.  At the original location of Wilton, the prepared food was most likely brought through the basement door and into the warming kitchen until it was ready to be served in the dining room.  For dinners or formal occasions, Mrs. Randolph would have the slaves dress in all their finery to tend to the meal or have them wait in the nearby passageway to be called in for service.

Common dining room furnishings included large pieces such as a table and chairs to seat guests, to showcase the family’s fine china at place settings and display the courses for the meals. Sideboards and corner cupboards were kept in the room to store, display and protect the owners silver pieces and china. Smaller items, typical to this dining room, were items similar to looking glasses (mirrors), knife boxes and a dumbwaiter.

The dumbwaiter was used to hold the plates and dining fundamentals, as well as food or small platters of cheese and dessert throughout the duration of the meal. It could also hold the glasses and liquor bottles for later in the evenings, after meals have been completed.

Currently on display in the dining room, the mid-18th century, three tiered, mahogany dumbwaiter within the Wilton collection is a fine example of what the Randolph’s might have owned. The table, given as a gift from the Roanoke Committee, in honor of Mrs. Granville Gray Valentine, exhibits a central spiral, turned column and cabriole legs that end with pointed pad feet.  In the warm summer months, dining outside was not uncommon. The dumbwaiter made it easy for the food and drinks to be brought out and served.

Wenger, Mark R. "The Dining Room in Early Virginia." Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. 3. (1989): 149-159. Web. 24 Oct. 2013. <>.

 "Design and Decor - Convenience." Thomas Jefferson's Montecillo. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct 2013. <>. 

Image Credit
Wilton House Museum