In another era, when the eyes of a child fixed upon the dumbwaiter in grandma's apartment, possibility presented itself. The thing was magical. And a great way to get the garbage down to the basement, where the super would dutifully offload the cargo and stuff it into trash cans. Over the years, dumbwaiters fell into disuse and virtually disappeared. Now, The Wall Street Journal reports, the dumbwaiter is back.

The second-floor deck of Geoff Lomax and Sabina Aurilio’s three-bedroom home in Berkeley, Calif., is decidedly contemporary: bifold doors, ipe-wood floors, a kitchenette. But open a sleek cabinet and you’ll find an element better suited to the 19th century: a dumbwaiter.

Added as part of a 2009 renovation, the machine whisks food and supplies between the deck and the first-floor kitchen, encouraging the couple’s now 14-year-old son to help with cleanup and saving tipsy guests from hauling stuff downstairs after a meal. “The dumbwaiter concept was really critical with that plan, being right over the kitchen,” said Mr. Lomax, 51, a research administrator with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Once primarily used by servants, these hand-cranked, cupboard-like contraptions used to move items between floors were “a very common feature” by the 1870s in hotels, apartment buildings and wealthy homes, said Lee Gray, a professor of architectural history at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

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