The earliest known Lazy Susanlike object still in regular, rotating play, dates from 1780 and was sold at Christie's auction a few years ago. The tray is made of mahogany and – like our version – it is 16 inches in diameter.
It was called a “dumbwaiter.” Today, we think of dumbwaiters as those little manual elevators that ferry food between floors in fancy manor houses. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, the term referred both to the elevators andto rotating trays and tables similar to today’s Lazy Susans.
The first known reference to something called a “Lazy Susan” was in 1917, when in the December issue of Vanity Fair,the now-shuttered department store Ovington’s advertised a 16-inch rotating mahogany tray. Check out the advertisement:“$8.50 forever seems an impossibly low wage for a good servant; and yet here you are; Lazy Susan, the cleverest waitress in the world,” read the copy.
So the “dumb” part of the waiter and the “Lazy” part of the Susan have similar roots. In both cases, the name refers to the tool’s ability to “replace” household staff.
But why Susan? Scholars of recent history seem to have pinpointed whenthe Lazy Susan got its name, they haven’t been able to identify why.That bit of trivia appears to be lost to history. It’s interesting to note, though, that according to baby name data, Susan wasn’t even a terribly popular name in the early 1900s. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was one of the most common girl’s names out there. But in 1917? Barely on the radar.
According to the Smithsonian, Lazy Susans also have a long-standing relationship with Chinese culture and Chinese-American food. Though the modern day version of the Lazy Susan seems to have European and American roots, Chinese literature from as far back as 1313 includes mentions of revolving tables.
Those original tables weren’t food-related at all; they were designed as a way to organize Chinese characters into moveable type for printing. But they worked in a manner similar to today’s Lazy Susan.
Fast-forward six centuries to the middle of the 20thcentury and Lazy Susans became familiar sights in Chinese-American restaurants, where they made sharing dim sum a whole lot easier.
This surge coincided with Lazy Susans’ peak popularity in suburban American homes. And, interestingly enough, with peak popularity of the name Susan itself. During the ‘50s, it was the fourth most popular girl’s name in the U.S. and in the 60’s, it came in third.
Is that a coincidence? Probably. It’s unlikely that American families decided, en masse, to name their daughters after rotating dining trays – especially ones that disparaged the girls’ work ethics.
Since the ‘60s, the name Susan has sunk on the “most popular baby names” lists – in 2018, it was the 1,079th most popular girl’s name in the U.S. – but Lazy Susans themselves remain as useful as ever. Whether you’re serving dim sum, coffee and pastries, a selection of cheeses or a boring weeknight dinner, they make group dining easier…and a lot more fun.
Read on for why the lazy susan is making a comeback.