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The smart home of 1895: Dumbwaiters, servant call systems, and milk receivers

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The original Alexa

The Breakers in Newport, RI.
Via Creative Commons.

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

From Apple HomeKit to Google Home and the Amazon Echo, modern tech companies are constantly trying to reinvent the way that we relate to our home, with the ultimate aim of making our lives more convenient.

But—to be honest—this isn’t anything new. For centuries, people have been inventing new gadgets to make their lives easier, especially at home. We’ll be taking a look at three such innovations today, each of which emerged at the turn of the 20th century.

This is by no means a look at every innovation that cropped up at the turn of the 20th century; it’s merely a peek into some of the most impactful, popular, and quirky systems and gadgets. Want to know about something else? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Dumbwaiters

Let’s begin with an invention that was employed everywhere from grand mansions to tenement buildings: the dumbwaiter.

While its origins are a little murky, one thing is certain: Thomas Jefferson helped to introduce the early dumbwaiter to America in the late 18th century.

When we think of dumbwaiters, we envision something resembling a small freight elevator. It moves between floors of a house to cart things like food and other supplies around. However, early versions of the dumbwaiter were quite different.

Popularized in France and England, dumbwaiters of the 18th century were multi-tiered stationery tables that held things like food and serving utensils in the dining room. Jefferson commissioned a number of these tables for his plantation Monticello and for the White House.

Jefferson made use of dumbwaiters to avoid interactions with his (enslaved) staff while he entertained: “By each individual was placed a dumbwaiter, containing everything necessary for the progress of the dinner from beginning to end,” wrote author and friend of Jefferson Margaret Bayard Smith, “So as to make the attendance of servants entirely unnecessary.”

At Monticello, Jefferson invented a dumbwaiter specifically for transporting wine, which he fit into the sides of his dining room fireplace. The contraption of weights and pulleys broke with tradition and functions similarly to the modern dumbwaiter. Empty bottles would be sent to the wine cellar below, and an enslaved attendant would send a full bottle back up.

Mechanical dumbwaiters didn’t really come into play until the 1880s, when New York City-based inventor George W. Cannon filed a patent in 1887. At that time, apartment living was becoming increasingly acceptable with the wealthy, which had previously favored townhouses. Dumbwaiters became especially sought after in tonier urban apartment buildings for their obvious conveniences.

Their function was similar to the wine dumbwaiter at Monticello: Workers would load goods onto the dumbwaiter in the basement of the apartment building, and then the load would be sent up to the apartment, seamlessly and without much interaction.

Dumbwaiters weren’t only for the wealthy: some tenements in New York City were also supplied with dumbwaiters, and many are still in use today—in fact, there are a number of companies manufacturing modern dumbwaiters. This is one bit of historic home tech that has retained its relevance over the centuries.

Majestic Milk and Package Receiver

In the early 20th century—right up until the 1930s and ’40s—the Majestic company, based out of Huntington, Indiana, produced what was billed as “a silent, automatic servant that both receives and guards milk or packages.”

Called the “milk and package receiver,” the contraption was, all things considered, quite simple, comprising a cast-iron box with two opposite doors, and one interior door that could only be opened from inside the house. The receiver would be installed near a door to the house, sometimes a back door near the kitchen and usually around shoulder height.

The delivery person would then be able to drop off whatever was being delivered, from up to six bottles of milk to small parcels, without anyone present to receive them.

Also, the heavy cast iron helped to insulate whatever was being delivered, protecting milk from the heat of the sun or from frost during the winter. Think of it as the original virtual doorman.

An advertisement for the Majestic Milk and Package Receiver.

Majestic touted the milk-and-package receiver to turn-of-the-century architects and real-estate developers as one of the most modern features in stylish new buildings. “The receiver fills a long-felt want in the building line,” an advertisement in “The American Contractor” reads from 1918. “Owners invariably specify it once they see it and understand its purpose.”

Today, they can be found sporadically in houses and apartment buildings from the first half of the 20th century, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one that hasn’t been bricked up.

Servant Call Systems

If you’ve watched so much as the opening credits of Downton Abbey, featuring the romanticized array of bells ringing to announce specific rooms, you’re already familiar with servant call systems.

“The call system got its start in the 18th century in England,” says Abigail Stewart, Research and Interpretation Specialist at The Preservation Society of Newport County. “The technology comes over to the United States, as most aristocratic things do, shortly thereafter—these systems stayed in place in the 18th and 19th centuries, then electricity started to come into play.”

One of the best case studies for the evolution of servant call systems is The Breakers mansion in Newport. The Breakers, a Vanderbilt home, burned down in 1892. The rebuilt mansion of 1895 was outfitted with the latest technology of the time—and then was updated as new technology continued to be released. All in all, there are three different forms of calling servants at The Breakers.

“The Breakers was built with a callbox system, called the annunciator. But it also had speaking tubes, and they also eventually got an inter-house telephone system,” explains Stewart.

The annunciator, an electric bell call system, got its start in hotels of the 1860s: “They became popular with hoteliers who wanted a good system for alerting the bell staff—and that’s literally what it was, a bell staff, somebody who responded at the call of a bell,” says Stewart. “Once they went into hotels, they made their way into the mansions of the rich and famous.”

One would push a button and an electric signal would be sent to a central call box, which would then drop down a little tag that would say exactly which room needed service.

Also useful were speaking tubes, installed on the second floor of the mansion and connecting to the basement. “It was a one-way communication system,” explains Stewart. “The butler could open the door to the tube, say his command, and the staff in the basement would hear it.”

The hardware for a speaking tube.
Via Creative Commons.

As technology continued to advance, and telephones came into play, The Breakers got an inter-house communication system so that residents could call from one part of the house to the next with their needs, like readying a carriage for a ride. “It was seen as yet another convenience,” adds Stewart. “It was wired for a very short distance. You almost never called houses down the street, although that was theoretically possible.”

The Breakers features the latest technology of the Gilded Age not just because of the wealth of the Vanderbilts, but also because the late 19th century—when the mansion was completed—was flush with innovations. The mechanical dumbwaiter was patented just a decade before The Breakers was rebuilt, and the Majestic Milk and Package Receiver arrived not too long afterwards.

But something all of these innovations—from call systems to the milk and package receiver—have in common is that they work to take other people out of the equation, something that the virtual assistants, apps, and smart-home hubs of the 21st century also accomplish.

“There was an expectation of comfort,” says Stewart, remarking on the technical innovations at The Breakers. “The Vanderbilts really are hitting all the marks as far as need, comfort, and having things at the touch of a button are concerned. It’s like the Amazon Prime of 1895!”