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Why Is That Rotating Tray a Lazy Susan, not an Apathetic Amy?

Lazy Susan
A lazy Susan makes table service simple and puts condiments or dishes of food within reach of everyone. annick vanderschelden photography/Getty Images

If your home has a corner cabinet, odds are it has a lazy Susan tucked away inside. Perhaps there is a lazy Susan atop the center of your dining room table, or you've spun one around to reach a tasty dish while seated at a round restaurant table.

Whatever its use or location, the lazy Susan arguably has the most enigmatic moniker of all household appliances. We don't call a napkin holder "holder Helen" or a mixing bowl "slow Sam." So how did the lazy Susan get its name?

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First, let's take a closer look at how a lazy Susan works. A lazy Susan refers to a round disc that rotates on a set of bearings located underneath. This spinning platform can be made of any number of materials, ranging from wood and plastic to glass or marble. Commercially crafted sizes come in even number diameters, with the most common sizes ranging from 12 to 48 inches (30 to 122 centimeters).

A small lazy Susan often is used to store condiments and silverware, putting them within easy reach of diners. However, in some restaurants and homes, a large lazy Susan of at least 22 inches (56 centimeters) is placed in the middle of a table to hold dishes of food that can then be rotated to each person.

Lazy Susan
Corner cabinets often feature a lazy Susan rotating shelf and cabinet, creating extra space and easy access.
jimkruger/Getty Images

While the exact origins of the lazy Susan are lost to history, there is a plausible theory about its name. "Susan" was a generic term popularized in the 18th century by employers referencing their female maidservants.

"Laziness was a common complaint against servants (at the time), so 'lazy Susan' must have been a usual term since the 18th century," said Markus Krajewski, a professor of media history at University of Basel, Switzerland, and author of "The Server: A Media History from the Present to the Baroque," in an Architectural Digest article.

In the two decades leading up to World War I, technological advances became substitutes for human power with the advent of the ringer washing machine and similar inventions. It became prohibitively expensive for some households to continue to hire servants. As rotating wooden trays cropped up in kitchens and on dining room tables, replacing the need for servants to dish food, the term lazy Susan likely became a mashup of a reference to both a lazy employee and the substitution of technology for human power, according to Krajewski.

There are other theories as well, although most experts agree that this ubiquitous household aid probably did not have a single inventor or a solitary namesake. Some believe that Thomas Jefferson may have invented the lazy Susan in the 18th century, referencing his daughter in the naming. As the story goes, his daughter Susan wasn't a fan of being served last at the dinner table and thus became his inspiration. The problem with this story is that Thomas Jefferson doesn't seem to have had a daughter named Susan. Others point to Thomas Edison as the inventor, believing that the turntable he created for his phonograph evolved into the lazy Susan.

Despite the murky origins of its name, the lazy Susan was forever cast into the American lexicon in 1917 when an advertisement appeared in Vanity Fair touting a rotating round tray called a lazy Susan. Turns out, the name may have been invented by an anonymous copywriter tasked with increasing sales during the holidays.

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