Dumbwaiters

Monticello dumbwaiter attributed to John Hemmings (1975-45). Thomas Jefferson FoArtist/Maker: Possibly John Hemmings

Created: 1790-1826

Origin/Purchase: Monticello Joinery

Materials: walnut; pine

Dimensions: 88.9 x 47 x 46.7 (35 x 18 1/2 x 18 3/4 in.)

Location: Dining Room and Tea Room

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to Francis Eppes; by purchase to William Cobbs; by descent to Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. Adams; by gift to Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1975.

Accession Number: 1975-45


Marble-topped dumbwaiter (1976-29). Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.Artist/Maker: Possibly Henry and Joseph Ingle

Created: 1790-1826

Origin/Purchase: Monticello Joinery or Henry and Joseph Ingle

Materials: mahogany with King of Prussia marble

Dimensions: 88.9 x 47 x 47 (35 x 18 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.)

Location: Dining Room and Tea Room

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to Robert M. Graham; by gift to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1983

Accession Number: 1976-129

Historical Notes: In Paris, Jefferson became accustomed to the French practice of using "dumbwaiters,"[1] small tiers of shelves on casters, for small dinner parties. These étagères were also known in England throughout the eighteenth century. Later, as president, Jefferson continued to employ dumbwaiters when he received dinner guests at the President's House. Margaret Bayard Smith remarked:

When he had any persons dining with him, with whom he wished to enjoy a free and unrestricted flow of conversation, the number of persons at the table never exceeded four, and by each individual was placed a dumbwaiter, containing everything necessary for the progress of the dinner from beginning to end, so as to make the attendance of servants entirely unnecessary, believing as he did, that much of the domestic and even public discord was produced by the mutilated and misconstructed repetition of free conversation at dinner tables, by these mute but not inattentive listeners.[2]

In Paris, where Jefferson could entertain as many as twenty guests at dinner, he owned five dumbwaiters, but these were sold because they "were of the more common kind."[3] To replace them, he purchased four or more in Philadelphia as they were among his furnishings at his house at Gray's Ferry.[4]

Two of the five extant dumbwaiters have features that suggest that they are the products of the Monticello joinery; straight, slightly tapering legs; astragal molding on the top rails; ovolo moolding on the side rails; and a double-scratch bead on the open end of the shelf. The other two dumbwaiters differ slightly. They have King of Prussia marble tops, brass bail handles on two sides, and legs that terminate in applied spade feet resting on casters. Only one of the mahogany dumbwaiters has its original spade feet; the others are later replacements. The fifth dumbwaiter has a wood and marble top but no spade feet. The comparatively unrefined workmanship suggests that they were made either in Monticello's joinery or possibly by two Philadelphia joiners named Joseph and Henry Ingle who performed cabinetwork for Jefferson in the early 1790s.

The dumbwaiter pictured at left was made in the Monticello joinery for Jefferson's use at Poplar Forest, his farm and retreat in Bedford County. The dumbwaiter descended in the family of William Cobbs, who acquired Poplar Forest together with some of Jefferson's furnishings in 1828.

Footnotes

  1. This article is based on Stein, Worlds, 282-3.
  2. Smith, First Forty Years, 387-88.
  3. William Short to Jefferson, 4 August 1790, in PTJ, 17:315.
  4. List of furniture on verso of Jefferson's drawing of the plan of his house on the Schuylkill River |(K-120/N-251), Massachusetts Historical Society.

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Discussion

says

TJ was so ambivalent and conflicted about slavery that he attempted to design his world to make slaves invisible. These dumbwaiters enabled Jefferson and his guests the illusion of functioning without the assistance of slaves. Food and wine magically appeared. Empty dishes disappeared via the revolving service door. Other masters may have wanted to show off their wealth and power with the conspicuous presence of slaves. Jefferson wanted to live as though slavery did not exist. Yet ironically, John Hemmings, his enslaved master carpenter, likely constructed some of these remarkable pieces that made the illusion possible.

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