The Lazy Susan: A Cross-Cultural Invention

Before going to China, I was told how different the traditional Chinese food would be from the Chinese food that we see in America. There is typically no General Tao Chicken or fortune cookies, but there was one thing that was ubiquitous that is typical of Chinese restaurants in America: The Lazy Susan. During my time in China, I greatly appreciated not having to order from a long, complicated Chinese menu. The meals were straightforward and food just appeared without a hassle. The reason for this was the presence of a tray at the center of the table that created a communal mealtime. This device was the Lazy Susan and it was everywhere in China. It was so prominent that it sparked curiosity about where this device came from and how it became so popular in China. As it turns out, the creation of the Lazy Susan is a global story that reaches across borders and is an example of a mixture of cultures.

The origin of the Lazy Susan and its name are still unknown. There are references to something known as a Lazy Susan as early as 1903 in a Boston Journal article, but it is thought that the device existed long before this and became popular with the variety of devices known under the “dumbwaiter” category. In 1917, Vanity Fair published an advertisement for a Lazy Susan and claimed it as an American invention; however, it is thought that Thomas Jefferson may have brought the idea back from France. Others believe it could have been invented by Thomas Edison, but the exact origin has not been proven.

While the Lazy Susan had been around in America, it did not become popular until the 1950s. The rise in popularity is traced back to a redesign of the Lazy Susan by George Hall, who was the co-owner of a soy sauce company. Hall designed a Lazy Susan for his brother-in-law Johnny Kan, who was a famous Chinese-American restauranteur in San Francisco. Kan opened a fine dining Cantonese restaurant in 1953, which was named after himself and quickly became extremely popular in San Francisco. Johnny Kan’s restaurant was praised by James Beard and was a hot spot for celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra.

Johnny Kan’s restaurant was the start of the popularity of the Lazy Susan in America. Popularity for the Lazy Susan dates to postwar America when Americanized Chinese restaurants were first becoming popular. “The trail of the Chinese Lazy Susan finally picks up in the 1950’s, which is when Chinese food got its makeover. The hub of Chinese American cuisine was San Francisco’s Chinatown, where a new generation of entrepreneurial restaurant owners was trying to better adapt Chinese cooking to American tastes.” George Hall built a Lazy Susan for Johnny Kan’s restaurant and the popularity of the restaurant was linked to the rise in popularity of this device both in America and abroad.

Eventually, the Lazy Susan lost popularity in America and now is thought of as a “kitschy” past-time, but this invention is still the cornerstone of most restaurants in China. The device is typically thought to be traditionally Chinese, but it is not. It was a product that was outsourced from America to China before international trade and globalization had become as prominent as it is today. The Lazy Susan is an example of a cross-cultural device that was created by sharing ideas and traditions across borders.