What is a Lazy Susan? The History Behind the Tray, and its Name

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 
A rotating tray (also called a Lazy Susan) serving green veggies.
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 one 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. But what is a Lazy Susan, and why does it have such a disparaging name?

Wherever you happen to find one, the Lazy Susan has arguably 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?


In this article, we'll give some long-overdue respect to the Lazy Susan and what it contributes to our organizational and dining experiences. Plus, we'll do our best to answer the mysterious origins of that rather hostile name "Lazy Susan".

How a Lazy Susan Works

First, let's take a closer look at how the rotating tray works. Lazy Susans are round discs that rotate on a set of bearings located underneath. This spinning platform can be made with 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 is often used to store condiments and silverware, putting them within easy reach of diners. They are also helpful at keeping kitchen clutter organized. 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.


A rotating shelf (known as a Lazy Susan) in the corner cabinet of a kitchen.
Corner cabinets often feature a Lazy Susan rotating shelf and cabinet, creating extra space and easy access.
jimkruger/Getty Images

Why is a Tray called Lazy Susan?

While the exact origins of the phrase "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 household servants, 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.


Other Theories Behind the Name of Rotating Trays

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 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 a Vanity Fair advertisement touted 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.

Is the Term "Lazy Susan" Sexist or Racist?

In recent years, many have questioned whether the phrase has any sexist or racist undertones, given its historical use. Even the characters on Curb Your Enthusiasm had a comedic shouting match over whether the term was inappropriate or not.

The use of "lazy" in the name might suggest a device that serves the function of a servant without needing the effort of a human server, thus being a "lazy" solution. This interpretation could be construed as having a mildly derogatory or sexist undertone, depending on one's perspective.


Meanwhile, there's no direct connection between the term "Lazy Susan" and any specific racial or ethnic group. The device itself is believed to have origins in different cultures, including early 20th century America or even earlier in Chinese restaurants, but its name doesn't reflect any particular racial or ethnic reference.

In contemporary times, the term is widely used without intent to offend, and most people refer to it simply as a household item.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.