Jefferson filled Monticello with gadgets designed with "a greater eye to convenience," and the dining room contains many examples.
A Device to Fetch Wine
Built into each side of the fireplace is a wine dumbwaiter, consisting of a box into which a slave in the wine cellar -- located directly below the Dining Room -- could place a bottle. At the appropriate time, a family member or Burwell Colbert, the slave butler, pulled the box up to the Dining Room and removed the bottle. When not in use, the dumbwaiters could be concealed by shutting their doors.
Video: Dumbwaiters at Monticello
Other types of dumbwaiters were used throughout dinner to allow guests to serve themselves in the "French style." Food was prepared in the kitchen, located under the south terrace and connected to the house by the all-weather passageway. The meal was then carried up a narrow and steep staircase, and stacked on rounded shelves attached to one side of the Dining Room door. The door rotates from the center instead of hinging on one edge. Once the shelves were loaded, slaves would turn the door so that the food would be inside the Dining Room.
From there, dishes would be placed on small tables with shelves called dumbwaiters. The dumbwaiters -- some of which were built at Monticello -- were on casters so that they could be wheeled to the table. A guest who dined at the President's House during Jefferson's tenure recalled: "by each individual was placed a dumbwaiter, containing everything necessary for the progress of dinner from beginning to end."
Function Comes First
Other elements of the room reflect Jefferson's interest in design and function. For instance, instead of having one grand dining room table, Monticello had several smaller tables which could be placed together to accommodate as many guests as necessary. Or if fewer people were expected, some of the tables could be folded and set against a wall to conserve space.
Finally, the dining and tea rooms are located on the north side of the house, the coldest rooms in the winter. To conserve heat, the windows in those rooms have a double thickness of glass, an insulating technique often used by modern builders. In addition, a double set of sliding French doors could be closed to separate the slightly warmer dining room from the northern-most tea room.
Dining Room dumbwaiter. Photograph by Robert C. Lautman.
Video footage of revolving serving door from Monticello, Home of Thomas Jefferson, produced for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation by Finley-Holiday Films. The video is available from the Monticello Museum Shops at (434) 984-9840.
Dumbwaiter. Made from walnut at the Monticello joinery. Photograph by Edward Owen.