Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a Dumb-waiter!

Do you know the difference between a Dumb-waiter, a What-not and an étagère? In 18th and 19th century English furniture, there are many pieces which look very similar but are in reality individual items which possess different functions. To the untrained eye, the differences between a dumb-waiter, a what-not and an étagère are not immediately obvious. A layman may not know that the subtle variants between these articles is dictated by their uses. This blog post will concentrate on the small but distinct differences between the Dumb-waiter, the What-not and the étagère, and their purpose of service will allow for the establishment of these contrasts, namely where they were usually situated and consequently what they retained.


The étagère, as its name suggests, originated in France and was extensively made there during the latter part of the 18th century. It is a light piece of furniture and it evolved in stages from small French 18th century occasional tables. Judith and Martin Miller in “The Antiques Directory” declare in regards to the étagère, that “a second tier was added either by setting a platform below or by placing a complete second table on top”. The meaning of the word étagère in English can be translated as a shelf or rack from a French dictionary, reflecting the fact that it consists of a series of stages or open shelves for the reception of small articles, such as ornaments. It is in many cases cornerwise in shape and étagères sometimes have an enclosed cabinet at the base for further storage space. Its design, shape and use meant it occupied the drawing-room. They are frequently found in exotic woods like rosewood, kingwood and fruitwood and the finest Louis XVI examples have gilt-metal applied to the frieze mounts and marble tops. Our example below is very graceful and elegant and wonderfully corresponds with the quintessential étagère. It has two tiers and retains a glorious golden rosewood colour. This particular étagère is beautifully delicate in its form and has pleasingly dainty square tapering legs. It also comprises of two delightful frieze drawers and ends on original brass box leather castors, which all charmingly maintains the characteristics of the classic étagère.



The What-not conversely is English and is a slightly later interpretation of the French étagère, emphasising the English obsession with the French style of furniture. Therefore there are similarities between the two, like the fact they could both be found in the drawing-room, and both were often cornerwise. The piece later termed a What-not is first recorded around 1800 in the records of Gillows' Cost Book to describe a tall stand usually rectangular in plan, consisting of slender uprights or pillars, supporting tiered shelves for the display of ornaments, books and other small items, and was extremely popular throughout the first three-quarters of the 19th century. Some were on castors for convenience of movement, and some were fitted with a drawer or drawers, but neither were pre requisites. The fact that its purpose was to exhibit miscellaneous objects is reflected in its name. The term fails to appear in Thomas Sheraton's “Cabinet Dictionary” of 1803 or any of his other works. The first published reference to a what-not materialises in the 1808 “Correspondence” of Sarah, Lady Lyttleton. Most early examples appear in mahogany and then in later Regency models, ormolu-mounting is not uncommon. It is with the earlier development of the what-not that we begin to observe distinguishing characteristics between it and the étagère. The Regency representation of a What-not was larger than later interpretations and was initially intended to hold folios or music for easy access, which differs from the destined purpose of the étagère. It is only with the movement of the piece from the library or music room to the drawing-room, that we witness a change in its function; namely to display an assortment of items. Our handsome example of a What-not is from the George III period, mahogany and three tiered, circa 1800. It delightfully conforms to the typical George III What-not, with its three tiers, which was the prevalent design of that period. The pierced gallery top, wonderful brass castors and the charmingly delicate central drawer are all nicely consistent with the classic What-not, and make for an exceptional piece of furniture.


The Dumb-waiter is an English invention and has existed in England since at least the 1720's. In most cases the tiers are graduated in size, increasing from top to bottom, supported on matching stems between each and ending on castors. The similarity between the Dumb-waiter, the étagère and the What-not in terms of physical resemblance comes in the form of the tiers, but that is where the similarity ends. Dumb-Waiter can literally be translated as 'silent waiter' and it was placed diagonally at the corner of a dining-table for self-service, permitting dinner parties to continue after the servants had been dismissed. This is where we witness a distinguishing characteristic of the Dumb-waiter from the other two pieces; the Dumb-waiter is employed in the dining room, whereas the What-not and the étagère were utilised in the drawing-room. Further dissimilarity is evident in the items the Dumb-waiter accommodates. It held additional plates, knives and forks, dessert and cheese, and for post-dinner drinking, bottles and glasses were placed on the tiers of revolving trays. These utensils differ to what the What-not and the étagère housed, being dining accoutrements, whereas the other pieces held more ornamental objects. Our example below wonderfully fulfils the archetypal features of the Dumb-waiter. It is of the George III period and is mahogany circa 1800, with two delightfully revolving tiers, which is very typical of Dumb-waiters of the period. It is supported on a beautifully reeded 3-splay base, making it an impressive piece of furniture.