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Back Story: Who was Susan, and was she truly lazy?

March 25, 2010 |  8:00 am
Lazy Susan

If you love a domestic mystery, consider the case of the Lazy Susan. This humble household helper has slogged through centuries essentially unchanged.

Despite its enduring popularity, definitive documentation on the design’s origins remain oddly elusive. Logic dictates that some time long ago, a sloth named Susan inspired the entire galaxy of twirling servers. Who was she? And who invented the turntable trays that link her forever with an insulting adjective?

It’s a very cold case. Amateur Internet sleuths credit two Thomases (Jefferson and Edison) for the invention, allegedly named after sluggish daughters. Historians say there’s no proof to back either assertion.

Americans tend to think Lazy Susans are kitschy relics of the 1950s and 1960s, but the lineage turns out to be longer and more distinguished. Historians can trace the concept to 18th century England, when it was probably known as a dumbwaiter. It may have become popular at a time when household servants were in declining supply. In the absence of maids or footmen to refill wine goblets and deliver condiments, diners were forced to reach across the table or interrupt conversation with "pass the pimientos please." The Lazy Susan helped to solve that problem, and plenty of 18th century examples prove it. In January, a mahogany Lazy Susan — 16 inches in diameter and dated circa 1780 — sold at Christie’s auction house in London for about $3,900. (That's it, above.)

"It's a great mystery," says Sarah Coffin, head of the product design and decorative arts department at the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. "I have no idea who first came up with Lazy Susans, although I've wondered. I'm pretty sure the name is a 20th century invention. But the earliest forms I know of are from 1720s and 1730s England. Many were pedestal tables with rotating tops used for wine and tea tasting. I’ve also seen versions with silver trays fitted into the tabletop."

Coffin agrees with the notion that the Lazy Susan was probably born as a replacement for household help.

One of the earliest print references to "Lazy Susan" confirms that theory. An ad in the December 1917 Vanity Fair magazine describes a mahogany model, 16 inches in diameter, that revolves on ball bearings. The text, provided by Vanity Fair librarian Cynthia Cathcart, reads in part: “$8.50 ... an impossibly low wage for a good servant” and refers to the Lazy Susan as “the cleverest waitress in the world.”

Henry Ford, the car company founder, loved camping out with friends but thought it unseemly to truck his full contingent of servants to the wilderness. Instead, he transported a 9-foot diameter dining table with an immense Lazy Susan mounted on top, so guests could serve themselves. Photos of his 1920s outings, and the table itself, are in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

Western film stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans owned a smaller 1950s version of Ford’s table, which they used in their Apple Valley breakfast room. The table is part of their museum in Branson, Mo.

Bill Stern, director and guiding light of the traveling Museum of California Design, calls the Lazy Susan "an outgrowth of the casual indoor-outdoor lifestyle born in Southern California in the 1950s and '60s." Those midcentury models, now coveted by collectors, featured small decorative dishes surrounding a much larger dish or casserole in the center -- all snuggled onto a revolving wood or metal tray. "The best designs, some of them multitiered, were from local pottery manufacturers," Stern says, and their popularity soon spread across the country.

"It's more popular now than ever," says Georgia LaGrange, buyer for LazySusans.com, one of many websites offering sleek new styles that cost $15 to hundreds of dollars. Yet no matter how long or how hard the Lazy Susan works, people rarely notice. They’re more interested in what's on it.

-- Bettijane Levine

Photo: George III mahogany Lazy Susan, circa 1780, sold for about $3,900 by Christie's in London on Jan. 20. Photo credit: Christies

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