On washing the dishes

 It is a natural law that a room tends to become dirty – and if you don’t believe me, take it up with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This natural law has evoked a social response – or many a social response. “Dirty” is a word that seems to imply dirt – that thing we see plants grow from, and that we walk on when we go out into the woods. But like a speck of dust, “dirty” has floated away from dirt to embrace a host of ills – stains, smears, muck, grease, fingerprints, fungus, etc. It also goes with the word “stinky” – dirty and stinky belong together like a comedy duo. If you smell something foul, chances are you will find something foul.

In the 19th century, the old ways – which in the country meant embracing your sweat and never changing your clothes, and in aristocratic circles meant heavy perfumes – gave way, grudgingly, to new ways – for instance, running water and electricity. It was a long haul, and involved (gasp!) a great deal of public investment in such things as sewers. The public campaign for “hygiene” used the medical knowledge of the time to make its case – to dirty and stinky, doctors added sick-making – or, after the discovery of germ theory, germy. Davis S. Barnes, in The Great Stink of Paris, pinpoints a crucial 19th century phenomenon:

“From setting fires in the streets to burning incense or sulfur indoors, communities have attempted to neutralize disease-causing influences by chemical and other means since ancient times. By the mid-nineteenth century, the favored forms of disinfection—defined by the Larousse dictionary in 1870 as the destruction of “certain gases or certain exhalations produced by living matter, and called miasmas”—included the application of liquid chemicals, the burning of materials such as sulfur, and mechanical devices producing artificial ventilation through the forced circulation of air. Larousse’s definition also complained about the popularity of so-called disinfections that “left much to be desired,” merely masking unpleasant odors with stronger odors rather than truly “removing the harmful and stinking substances from the air.”

The legacy of that time is our comparatively bright and shining present. However, I think it is a good rule of thumb to suspect that every rational policy rides on the back of a host of superstitions – metaphors and myths that do the mental policing work. I suspect disinfecting, which after all aligns itself, when all the germ theory talk is done, with ancient methods of meeting “pollution”, has generated certain habits that are, if not irrational, at least not as rational as they seem.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – the dishwasher!

I have never lived in a place without a dishwasher, and hope never to live in such a impoverished space. But I have long had my doubts that a dishwasher is worth it. And surely I am not alone in my existential struggle. This morning, for instance: I get up and go into the kitchen to make coffee. Everybody is asleep – and this is how I like to begin Sunday mornings. A little pause in which I am the waking, bright little dot of consciousness, getting brighter as my eyes get used to being open (and no doubt the part of my brain devoted to vision pumps itself up), while my loved ones are in their beds, dreaming. Is there a more secure feeling than this? While making coffee, I decided to unload the dishwasher and put into it some plates and cups I found in the sink. So I did what I always do – I ran hot water on the plates and cups, I wiped them with a sponge, I made sure there was no clump of food sticking to any surface, and I popped them in the dishwasher. And as I did so I thought, as I always think, why do we have a dishwasher?

From experience and common sense I know that if you put dishes, cups, bowls, cutlery and whatnot into the dishwasher and you don’t rinse them beforehand, they won’t get washed. In 1956, the New Yorker sent a correspondent to GE to look at the new mobile “automatic dishwasher”. The correspondent, in the typical arch New Yorker style of the day (it was the heyday of E.H. White), cooked and cleaned in an “unmechanized” kitchen. In order to test the new dishwasher, she – I strongly suspect a she – brought an “unwashed earthenware pudding dish that in my own, unmechanized kitchen would have required overnight soaking and the energetic application of steel wool.” The GE people didn’t like the pudding dish – myself, I don’t know what one of those is – and sternly warned that “no automatic dishwasher should be expected to take on such a heavily encrusted utensil without a preliminary soaking”. Isn’t this what the confidence man calls a “tell”. What is this machine doing?

The story about the invention of the dishwasher gives us some sense of what the machine was meant to do. The standard (American) story is that the dishwasher was invented by a mechanically inclined socialite name Josephine Cochrane, who noticed that the fine china was being chipped by the servants when they washed it by hand. This is the story as told in Tech Trends by Denis Karwata:

Her method involved spraying hot soapy water onto dishes loaded in an open rack. One rinse with hot water and they were left to air dry. That simple process worked well in her trial-and-error testing.Her husband supported her efforts, but he died a few weeks later in 1883. Discovering they were deeply in debt, she needed to develop her invention. Cochrane began by shaping a copper boiler and building a frame for a large commercial dishwasher. She enlisted the help of George Butters, a mechanic for the Illinois Central Railroad. He remained with her from then on. Cochrane’s early models used a hand pump to spray soapy water against dishes in individual wooden racks. She patented it in 1886 and had it constructed by independent machine shops. Advertised as the Garis-Cochran Dish-Washing Machine, it cost about $100. Using her social skills and personal contacts, she sold her first dishwasher in 1887 to the Palmer House hotel in Chicago. Orders from other hotels followed. Her improved motor-driven model of about 1888 could wash 120 dishes a minute. Cochrane’s major break came with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Its 27 million visitors ate meals on dishes that had to be washed. She provided all the dishwashers used at the exposition and they gained much commercial exposure. She had a display area in Machinery Hall and was the only woman who personally demonstrated her invention.

Josephine, I salute you! Your invention probably was as important to the growth of the restaurant business as anything else. Given the need to save on the breakage and clean quickly, the dishwasher and the restaurant were a natural fit. Myself, I’ve been a washer. I worked for a year at the Magnolia in Austin, a cheap but good restaurant noted for its studenty food – U. Texas grad students could afford to go there and pretend to throw money around. Good breakfasts, some Tex Mex here and some insufferably crunchy veggie dishes there. Beer. On my shift, the job was to put down the plates and utensils on the tables, clean up the tables, carry the dirty plates, cups, glasses, chip baskets, and cutlery back to the cleaning area, douse it in the big sink where I had a kicking semi hose to wash off cling and crap and then stack em up and slide them in the washer, which boiled them just like the Travis County health department wanted. The work gave me those pale hands, and sometimes a few steam burns, and an on the jump skinniness that all bus boys have – cause you are burning the calories doing this work. In our very literate kitchen, I was passed the one book everybody had to read: George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.  I think this may be Orwell’s best book. If you have never read Down and Out, stop here and go and get it and read it. It is that kind of book.

Here’s Orwell’s description of his job as a plongeur at a hotel in Paris:

My bad day was when I washed up for the dining-room. I had not to wash the plates, which were done in the kitchen, but only the other crockery, silver, knives and glasses; yet, even so, it meant thirteen hours’ work, and I used between thirty and forty dishcloths during the day. The antiquated methods used in France double the work of washing up. Plate-racks are unheard-of, and there are no soap-flakes, only the treacly soft soap, which refuses to lather in the hard, Paris water. I worked in a dirty, crowded little den, a pantry and scullery combined, which gave straight on the dining-room. Besides washing up, I had to fetch the waiters’ food and serve them at table; most of them were intolerably insolent, and I had to use my fists more than once to get common civility. The person who normally washed up was a woman, and they made her life a misery.

It was amusing to look round the filthy little scullery and think that only a double door was between us and the dining-room. There sat the customers in all their splendour—spotless table-cloths, bowls of flowers, mirrors and gilt cornices and painted cherubim; and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth. For it really was disgusting filth. There was no time to sweep the floor till evening, and we slithered about in a compound of soapy water, lettuce-leaves, torn paper and trampled food. A dozen waiters with their coats off, showing their sweaty armpits, sat at the table mixing salads and sticking their thumbs into the cream pots. The room had a dirty, mixed smell of food and sweat. Everywhere in the cupboards, behind the piles of crockery, were squalid stores of food that the waiters had stolen. There were only two sinks, and no washing basin, and it was nothing unusual for a waiter to wash his face in the water in which clean crockery was rinsing. But the customers saw nothing of this. There were a coco-nut mat and a mirror outside the dining-room door, and the waiters used to preen themselves up and go in looking the picture of cleanliness.


It was certainly not that bad at the Magnolia – I’ve worked at other restaurants, and the Magnolia was pretty good – but inevitably during a day in which you are both making meals for a minimum of three to five hundred people per day, with the prep this entails (I did a lot of prep – freezer to washbasin, knife at the ready for the green peppers, mushrooms, onions, spinach, lettuce, then box em in the plastic containers and put them back), then the open flame where the cooks are cooking and the area around the washing machine and sinks that is always dripping with water, and the sweat and steam of it all, gives you an Orwellian sense of restaurant work. If I was stunned by a sudden revelation of great philosophical worth, I had no time to jot it down, so instead it would be shouted out, to join all the other jokes, bitching, orders, clatter, waiters coming in and demanding what was the holdup on such and such a table, and music. Without the music we would have died. The music in a kitchen is to the workers therein what the clothesline is to the clothes drying thereon – it holds us up.

I began this, though, not with the intention of flashing back to the battle zones of my youth, but to asking the question: why did the dish washer, an instrument that was made for assembly line washing, become de rigeur for the bourgeois household? Which is another way of asking: what am I doing loading the dishwasher?


The dishwasher, I think, came as part of the set of modern cons, with the vacuum cleaner, the clothes washer, HVAC, and the shower. In France, the discovery of the “lave-vaisselle” came after the U.S. In 1963, Le Monde could ask: “Will the dishwasher soon enter our kitchens, equaling the refrigerator and the washing machine? We note little demand for it as of yet…” In the U.S., though, sales of dishwashers increased dramatically after the shortages of the war years. Keeping our eye on the reason that restaurants were the first big users of dishwashers, we should note that this was also the era of the baby-boom. Families with five kids – like the one I grew up in – were pretty common. That means seven people, using dishes at breakfast and dinner, and in the summer at lunch. In these circumstances, there was every reason the harried housekeeper – usually a woman – should leap upon the dishwasher. Even if it required a bit of pre-rinsing, the sheer amount of crockery made for a depressing prospect. Surely this wasn’t the American dream!

At some point, the urge to repopulate the world after the world wars subsided. But it left behind a little reef of household cons.; a habitus was formed; and we couldn’t do without our dishwashers. We were sent out into the world, baby boomer and x-er, millennial and whatever you call the newest generation, with an idea of how things should be – and that included, always, a dishwasher.

I revolt, I shake the mind-forged manacles of mankind, but, as well, I take the sponge, get the jelly out from between the tines of the fork, and put it in the cutlery basket. My revolts, as always, end in windy reveries. This is one of them.

About Roger 78 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

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