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The dishwasher dream

How domestic technology saved us time

What dreams the dishwasher represents. We never quite made it to the future the Jetsons promised us, but we do have robot hoovers and dishwashers to save us time on domestic chores. Or at least, some of us do. About half of households in the UK have a dishwasher, two-thirds in the US. As recently as 1994, only 18 per cent of British homes had a dishwasher. Homes with two adults are much more likely to own a dishwasher, irrespective of the number of children.

Part of the reason more people don’t have dishwashers — alongside with the problem of NIMBYism in Britain, which leads to small flats with relatively little space — is that many people prefer to wash their dishes by hand. For some families, cultural reasons mean they prefer washing by hand, either because they have moved from a country where dishwashers are much less common, or because they prefer the slower pace of washing by hand. Some people, though, make the claim that washing by hand is more efficient.

This is wrong. Studies have found that washing by hand uses up to twice as much water, and that a fully-loaded machine will use less energy and detergent than even very efficient hand washing. Modern energy-efficient machines have much lower power usages, with eco-settings being the most efficient. Modern American machines use 53 per cent less energy than machines from the 1990s. You can also save money by running your dishwasher during a low-tariff period. Handwashing is often less effective and requires extra rinsing water too. Then there is the time saving. One study found it took nine minutes to load and unload the number of dishes you can wash in an hour of hand-washing time. Another found significant increase in the amount of time people spent watching TV and listening to music when they owned a dishwasher. 

You might prefer to stand at the sink and wash your dishes slowly

You might prefer to stand at the sink and wash your dishes slowly, but that is often a lifestyle choice rather than a laborious necessity. Read the memoirs of women and cooks from before the time of dishwashers, like One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens and it becomes obvious that anyone who ever worked in service would have seen dishwashers as the miracle they are. In The Gate of Angels Penelope Fitzgerald spends nearly a page detailing all the fiddlesome crockery required even for a middle-class priest and his wife in 1910 — and the tiresome labour that involved for her. Simply being able to choose between the machine and the sink represents a convenience our great-grandmothers could only have fantasised about.

The first dishwasher was invented in 1850, made of wood. It required hand cranking and was slow and unreliable. Dishwashers began to become commercially viable in the late nineteenth century when a new model was invented by Josephine Cochrane, an upper-class woman who wanted to protect her expensive, delicate china from clumsy servants. Her husband’s surname was Chochran, which she Europeanised with the final e. Dinner party snobbery inspired the invention of dishwashers. 

Cochrane’s father was an engineer and when her husband died she hired an engineer to help her create her machine. Their design involved placing dishes inside a wheel that spun round in a boiler while hot soapy water was sprayed up onto the dishes. It was a hand-pumped device that provided a better system of safely washing expensive dishes rather than being a labour saving machine. She found a market for her machine among hotels and restaurants and won honours at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 for its mechanical construction. When she opened a factory, the engineer who had made the machine with her, George Butters, became the foreman. After she died, Cochrane’s company was purchased by The Hobart Manufacturing Company, which started selling home dishwashers in 1949. Those were sold under the KitchenAid brand, now part of Whirlpool.

The machine-design we are familiar with — front door, pull out racks — was created in 1924, shortly followed by the first electrical machine in 1929. Despite the improvements in design, it took the post-war consumer goods boom to make dishwashers more commonplace in American and then British homes. Most recently, as we have seen, machines have become much more efficient. 

Cochrane’s concerns are still with us. There is a plethora of advice about what you should and shouldn’t wash in a machine, with concerns about dulling, blunting, wearing brittle, and wearing out items like knives, wooden spoons, and glasses. But so is the legacy of her efficiency. Some people spend their time writing and talking about why dishwashers are inferior to handwashing. The fact that society now collectively has the time to produce and consume such debates is one of the many splendid side-effects of the many labour saving devices in our homes. 

Of course, while a dishwasher can save you time, it can’t advise you how best to use it.

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