What’s in a name? The origins of Lazy Susan

So why are you called Lazy Susan we hear you cry and what’s a Lazy Susan anyway?

Well a Lazy Susan is defined as…

“A rotating tray, generally circular, which is placed on the top center of a table in order to assist in moving food around to all the diners on all sides of the table.”

General consensus is that the term ‘Lazy Susan’ first made a written appearance in a Vanity Fair advertisement for a ‘Revolving Server or Lazy Susan’ in 1917. manufactured by a compant called Ovington, you could pick up their Lazy Susan for $8.50.

The advert itself described the Lazy Susan as a mahogany model, 16″ in diameter, that revolves on ball bearings. And it was described as…

“An impossibly low wage for a good servant and the cleverest waitress in the world.”

Today, many people tend to think of the Lazy Susan as a kitschy relic from the 1950’s/60’s, but its pedigree is much more distinguished than that. Historians have traced the concept back as far as 18th century England, when it was more commonly known as the dumbwaiter.

And few years back, a mahogany Lazy Susan (or dumbwaiter as it would of been known in its day) – 16″ in diameter, dating from circa 1780 – sold at Christie’s auction house in London for in excess of £3,000.

Contemporary Lazy Susan

A dumbwaiter is a pretty self-explanatory name, it does what it says on the tin. But the true mystery is in the now popular term, Lazy Susan. The Lazy part is fairly obvious I suppose, but I’m afraid there’s no clear evidence as to definitively prove the origin of the Susan part. So who is this Susan? And why was she specifically so Lazy?

Well I’m afraid there doesn’t appear to be a definitive source, rather, there’s a myriad of myths and reports that are often conflicting. This humble household helper has slogged its way through the centuries essentially unchanged, but despite its enduring popularity, definitive documentation on the design’s origins remain strangely elusive.

The Jewish World Review reported in 2002 that…

“The device itself predates the name ‘Lazy Susan’, as many antique dealers will tell you. These revolving serving trays have been around since the 1700’s, where they were often tiered and called ‘dumbwaiters.’ Dumbwaiters were so called because they quietly (hence the ‘dumb’ part) took the place of waiters in the dining room.”

However, another account credits both the device and its name to President Thomas Jefferson, while another names the inventor and scientist Thomas Edison.

A team of researchers at wiseGEEK.com believe that…

“Thomas Jefferson invented the lazy Susan in the 18th century, though they were referred to as dumbwaiters at that time. It is said that Jefferson invented the lazy Susan because his daughter complained she was always served last at the table and, as a result, never found herself full when leaving the table. Others believe that Thomas Edison was the inventor, as he is believed to have invented the turntable for his phonograph, which later evolved into the Lazy Susan.”

It is also worth noting at this point in our tale that Thomas Edison also had a daughter named Susan. However, the true history of the name Lazy Susan appears to be more legend than fact.

According to Evan Morris, writer of the newspaper column The Word Detective, in an article titled Whirling Domestics he stated that…

“Many authorities recount the theory that the ‘Susan’ was simply a common maid’s name, and that the term ‘Lazy Susan’ applied to this self-service gadget was a sarcastic reference to the supposed sloth of household servants”.”

And finally, another Jewish World Review posting gives, in our opinion, probably the most realistic version of the name’s origin…

“It is more than likely that ‘Lazy Susan’ was styled on previous combinations in English that use ‘Susan’ (‘black-eyed Susan’ being the most common). There are many such words in English that use names in thus generic way – for example ‘Peeping Tom’, ‘Jim-Dandy’ and ‘Jolly Roger’ are just a few. It is also possible that the combination of the ‘z’ sound in ‘lazy’ and the initial ‘s’ sound of ‘Susan’ appealed to the manufacturer of the Lazy Susan, and in a brilliant Marketing move, the ‘Lazy Susan’ was born.”

One thing we do know, is that it is both simple in design and common in use. And, as we can testify at Lazysusanfurniture.co.uk, it is more popular than ever. Yet no matter how long or how hard the Lazy Susan works, people rarely notice this ingenious little invention. They’re more interested in what’s on it!

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