Something as simple as washing dishes

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

I spend a lot of my time in the kitchen and a lot of that time is spent washing dishes.

Washing these dishes makes me think about many things, one of them being the history of who usually washes the dishes in the western world, among many other varied things.

I like to think of myself as a progressive woman, a feminist, and a somewhat forward thinker. Growing up I never had fairy tale dreams about being swept away by a man, or having a ‘dream wedding’ where I was the princess for the day. I feel I was really raised to take care of myself, by myself and to count on me because it can be disappointing to count too much on other people –  and not to mention expensive. Really though, instead of the standard fairy tale, I wanted the man I was to spend my life with to be my equal, a partner in crime if you will. A person that wouldn’t mind changing the oil in the car or changing a diaper before we set off for another travel adventure. I’d like to think that I, at least, came pretty close. I married for love, and the man I fell in love with can do a lot. He isn’t a Jack-of-all-Trades, but he is intelligent and sensitive and not like any of the assholes I dated before I met him. He was and is a keeper and so far, has helped me create one of the most beautiful babies I’ve ever met in my life.

That said though, we both have a thing about washing dishes. As the progressive female I think I am, I am torn between my DIY self and what has seemed to be the standard feminist idea of modern womanhood (which thankfully is much more rounded and fuller than it was in the 1970’s and 80’s); the idea that you can either have a career or have a family and only if you are superwoman (and don’t complain or admit that you are STRESSED out) can you have them both. It seems funny to me that the more polarized American politics and commentary seem to become, the more rounded many centrist voices seem to equally become. Feminism is so much more today than breaking through the glass ceiling (which still exists, btw) or burning bras or hating men…or whatever the horrible cliches were even fifteen years ago. Feminists stay at home, go to work, are female, are male, are lesbians, are heterosexual, are transsexual, are homosexual, are single, are divorced, are widowed, are conservative, are progressive…they run the gamete. They no longer fit into just the one ‘feminist’ label. These old ideas of, “if you believe X, then you must also be X [only, and nothing more complex]” are so old and cliche now which makes me a very happy, happy person.

Here is a clip of Emily Matchar, author of the book “Homeward Bound” discussing this new domesticity, which I call an aspect of modern feminism and Stephen Colbert says might just be a ‘movement’ because the jobs just aren’t there any more (and he is partially correct). I am interested in reading this book, especially if it discusses washing up, but also because I feel there is a fine line between managing the house and duties equally in a modern way to being Suzy-Q home-maker. It is a dance that my husband and I do often. I found the clip because I was searching for “domesticity”, “modern domesticity”, “cultural domesticity” and well, the history of women in the kitchen – especially doing the dishes.

When I was a child I used to spend a lot of time with my grandparents. My mothers’ parents had split up, so that meant going to three different places: my grandfathers’ on the Oregon Coast, my grandmothers’ farm or my father’s parents place at the mountain. I used to love to visit all of them for different reasons. One distinct memory I have is of  a visit to the coast to stay with my grandfather. Now, I don’t remember if he had asked me to do the dishes or if I volunteered, but I do remember being scolded after I filled the sink with water and then poured more than a spoonful of dish soap into the water. All of my grandparents were children of the Depression, which of course left it’s mark. My grandfather had explained to me that if done at the right time, the only soap you would need would be a drop about the size of a penny. As he was taught, there was no need for any more, more would just be wasteful, and as he remember it, there was no room to waste.

Somewhere growing up, after the lesson from my grandfather I started to wash the dishes more often. Again, I don’t know if I volunteered or it was made my household chore. However, I washed the dishes  not by filling the sink with water and soap, but by wetting the dish rag or sponge, dropping some dish soap onto it and then running the faucet water as I washed. As I grew up and became more socially aware, it never dawned on me that the way I washed wasted so much soap and water. How utterly silly of me. I have learned though that I am not alone in how I wash dishes. I have discovered that quite  a few of my American peers, especially in Portland, wash dishes by hand the same way.

The craziest thing I have realized is that something as simple as washing the dishes is totally cultural.

I cannot understand the British habit of washing and rinsing dishes in the same dirty water, and drying them without washing off the soap suds. Is this similar to having a bath and not rinsing off the soap? Am I missing something here?

Elizabeth Augustine, Derby, UK
Of course, since this is an aspect of culture then it is also susceptible to stereotypes, as this commenter from the same thread above can attest:

Oh dear, think some of you are staying in the wrong places in The U.K. When you visit! I came upon this site accidentally whilst looking for soap dishes! I am from England, but have lived in several other places; I can say that I not only have a dishwasher, double sink and mixer tap – but I also have always rinsed dishes after washing! I am 40 and was taught this by my parents and also in Home Economics at school! Always glasses first and pans last. Always dry glasses straight away with a clean cloth to stop smears. I can honestly say I don’t know anyone in England who doesn’t rinse their dishes, so you really can’t generalise so much! But to the person who likened it to not rinsing after brushing teeth – official advice now is NOT to rinse after brushing, new analogy required!! Thanks, will go and find soap dishes now, hope you come to some conclusion or find something more useful to do with your time! Have a nice day now y’all!!

Sarah Cox, Kent England

Now, you might be thinking to yourself: “Who cares, it is only dishes.” Well, you should check out the discussion thread from the Guardian just devoted to washing up and think again, it is quite a thread! But, I have found this difference to be a subtle yet striking one. The Brit’s that I know and have asked about this say that they have either done their dishes this way or just purchased a dishwasher and haven’t thought about the topic since. I have an Asian childminder that cares for my son when I have to work and she also washes dishes differently than I had learned or that I have seen the Brits do, which I sum up to cultural differences. Hey, even my American friend from the Midwest was taught to do her dishes differently. I just find this very interesting!

I am a Malaysian who is studying and working in Melbourne right now. A couple of times I’ve seen my work colleagues (English, Australian, New Zealander) do the dishes this way, I asked them why they do not rinse off the soap, they say it’s to save water. As what most of the others here said, I totally can’t accept eating soap with my food. Coming from an Asian background, the way we do dishes does tend to waste water. I would sort of improvise this “British way”, by draining the sink of soapy water, then running all the dishes under cold water before putting onto the drying rack. No second sink bowl required. Recently I stayed in a hostel where the manager who lived there insisted that everyone also did the dishes this way. We just complied, but every single time we take a plate out of the cupboard, we rinse it once before putting food on it.

Jing Tao Tan, Melbourne, Australia
also from the

Now, try as I might I have been unable to really find information about or people discussing this topic online. Mainly I have found information about how appalled so many people seem to be at the traditional way Brits wash dishes compared to how wasteful Americans generally are when doing the same task.

Take for example, this article I came across by Toni Hargis titled, “The Cultural Divide on Washing Up” (, 11.10.12). In this article, Hargis describes exactly how Brits traditionally, collectively, wash their dishes while also hinting at the strange looks that might be incurred from Americans:

As a Brit in the U.S.A. I often have to turn away when witnessing an American washing dishes. I’m pretty sure they all have to bite their tongues when watching me do the same, such are the differences in our preferred methods. In Postcards from Across the Pond, American writer Mike Harling describes Brit washing up thus: “First fill the sink with hot water and washing up liquid, then immerse your dishes and wash them as you normally would. Now take them out of the soapy water and put them in the drying rack. No, no, don’t rinse them; just put them in the rack. Yes, like that, with soap bubbles all over them. Apparently your mother was wrong – you can eat off dishes that have not been thoroughly rinsed and not get sick. In time you’ll get used to the idea. (Or you can sneak back into the kitchen and rinse them off when no one is looking.)”

In addition, Brits wash everything in the same sink full of soapy water, which sounds gross but there is method in that particular madness. See, if you start with the least dirty items, such as glasses, progress through medium soilage and then wash the pots and pans last, you’re not really washing anything in dirty water.

Hargis explains that Brits seem to do this for a few reasons and also admits that not all Brits wash up in this way, of course. Traditionally, British homes had separate taps for hot and cold water and switching between the two is not only annoying but also time-consuming, thus just removing one of the steps of washing dishes makes life that much easier. In addition, the hot water tap apparently can become scaldingly hot rather quickly so, by not rinsing the dishing the human dishwasher didn’t have to risk being burned. I can attest to this in our German house. Not that we have two taps, but because of our amazing water heaters and their wonky heating levels, we can either have scalding hot water for about five minutes or a nearly perpetual amount of tepidly warm water depending on the setting. These choices can be painful in the winter and generally way too much in the summer: yay choices! Hargis continues that the other two reasons Brits became accustomed to doing dishes in this way were because of an ad campaign by some dishwashing liquid years ago that claimed their soap washed the dishes so well that they didn’t require washing and that air drying them saves on the spread of germs by using a wet kitchen towel to dry all the dishes. For whatever reason, the difference between a Brit washing up and an American washing up is night and day, as the author notes as well. Americans basically need a literal ton of water, only slightly less soap, multiple sink basins, and the space on the counter to allow the dishes to drip/air dry.

As a British friend of mine says, as I think he might be defending the British way since he says this a lot, “Washing up this way apparently kills roughly six people a year.” I forget where he gets this figure from. More importantly, though do those deaths make the British way of washing up a good or bad thing to ingest the leftover soapy water? Actually, though, he is used to rinsing off all of his dishes before using them and even does it when he is at our house too when he knows we have washed up like traditional water-wasting Americans. Habits, they say, die hard.

Here is an example of how to wash dishes from an American perspective from and Cinderella’s Cleaning Services in Houston, Texas. My favorite part of the instructional video is when Indira explains that we should put our dishes away promptly “so that they don’t get dirty again or if you see them sitting out, you might think they are still dirty and re-wash them”. That last part is a kick! Oh, how I wish I could imbed that video into the blog, it is a hoot especially since she is only washing three dishes, so of course, why fill the sink with water, just let it run.

I especially like that Indira explains that we can use the same towel that we used to dry the dishes to clean up our washing mess. If you watch the video, you see her take the towel from the counter, into the sink, and then back onto the counter. Well according to Oprah and Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona: “While the floor may be crawling with 1,000 bacteria per square inch, the sink typically hosts around 500,000 bacteria per square inch — and she’s seen sinks that had millions more than that. ‘The sink is a ready source of bacteria just from washing off hands as well as food, which may carry fecal bacteria.'” (Corrie Pikul, 07.07.11) – Um, gross!

There is a myriad of videos on Youtube instructing you how to wash dishes while listing to Jack Johnson apparently. The first video I clicked on seems to be a bit more realistic and environmentally aware which is good since the video seems to be for young adults.

I like that the host, who is unfortunately clearly reading, mentions that “if you have a double basin sink you can fill the other half with hot water and add a tablespoon of bleach to the water to kill germs.” That is actually how we had to wash the dishes in my father’s grocery store per the Oregon Health Departments health code (with three basins actually. one to wash, the second one to rinse and the third to disinfect with bleach).

The Wikipedia article on washing dishes offers great information but with few citations to back up its claims (queue the “wah-wah” sound). However, it still might offer some insight – even if not entirely truthful and based on hearsay evidence. What follows is an explanation as to why some European (but not other continents of people, why?!) might use a basin inside the sink basin to wash dishes:

This practice may have started as a matter of hygiene, as the kitchen sink was the only sink available for all the household water. The clothes were washed in the sink; the water used to wash the floor went down the sink, and so it made sense to separate the dishwater from the sink. There were two other possible reasons: First, kitchen sinks tended to be very large in a time when heating water was considered to be a major household expense; a tub used less water. Second, kitchen sinks were usually made of hard ceramic; any contact between the sink and plates was likely to cause chips, but a tub could be made of more forgiving material. Using a separate washing-up bowl in the sink also provides a place (down the gap between bowl and sink) to dispose of unfinished drink, soaking-water, etc. (Wikipedia)

I suppose how we wash dishes tells us a lot about our cultural domestic history.  I can say that I imagine I learned to wash dishes the way I did, in spite of my grandfathers best efforts – and probably my mother’s too, was two-fold. One, because I was buying into all the things my culture was either directly or indirectly telling me, like that we have more than enough water and soap and energy and two, because I at times was a bit of a cocky little kid, stubborn to the core and both the British and reduced-water-usage way of washing dishes seemed kind of gross to me, and I knew everything – duh. Oh, so often I am reminded how thankful I am to be aging and not be in the think of puberty and young adult awkwardness!

What I mean when I say that I was buying into all the things my culture was either directly or indirectly telling me is the idea of the boundless energy, resources and space. We can wash dishes however we want, wasting a ton of soap and water because there will always be more soap and tons more water, so who cares. I am American and I do what I want! I do say that in, at least, half jest. If Wikipedia is correct and the way many Europeans wash their dishes, with a basin in the sink does have to do with historic use, then that too says a lot. People outside of America are used to less space because traditionally, most places in the world haven’t had as much space as America in our modern world (I’m guessing based on what I know historically about populations over time, sanitation and modernity).

Furthermore, Americans are excellent forgetters. Or more neutrally put, Americans generally and culturally speaking have a ‘short-term orientation’, which means we focus on the present or past, not the future; we have wickedly awful memories when it comes to our history. We are a nation of people looking forward, not looking necessarily back; our traditions are our non-traditions. Whereas other nations, lets say in Britain, Northern Ireland and continental Europe, traditionally score higher regarding ‘Long-term orientation‘ they have a higher regard for traditions and norms, in other words, it is because it is a part of their collective cultural every-day process. For example, I live in a house that is officially older than the United States of America. I LIVE IN A HOUSE THAT IS 500 YEARS OLD. As an American and to other Americans, that is amazing. We have very different ideas of what old is in America. Additionally, this speaks to the American (western?) cultural norm that Man can control nature. “Through intelligence and the application of knowledge, humans can control nature. In other words, they embrace a ‘humans over nature’ position.” (Kluckholm & Strodtbeck, 1961)

Here is yet another video from, also from an American perspective that seems a little more realistic about saving water and soap while washing dishes. I think this is almost in line with what I do these days. However, I realize it does not address the differences between Brits and Americans, or anyone else for that matter in how we all wash dishes. It also doesn’t address the idea that washing dishes by hand wastes water. I’ve always actually wondered at how scientists come to conclusions about how washing dishes by hand actually does waste water since studies like the one mentioned in the following quote do not exactly identify the method of hand-washing dishes that is being employed, thus I only believe it to be true if you are attempting to only wash up as many dishes as are mentioned and only ever use that many place settings and only have an energy efficient  dishwasher, because life exists in a vacuum:

A study out of the University of Bonn in Germany, reported by Pablo Päster in the May/June issue of EatingWell Magazine, found that washing a load of dishes (12 place settings) by hand uses on average 27 gallons of water and 2.5 kilowatt-hours of energy to heat the water—equivalent to running a hair dryer for 2 1/2 hours.

By comparison, an energy-efficient dishwasher uses about 4 gallons of water and 1 kWh of energy per load. (And over the course of a year, using the dishwasher saves more than 400 hours of labor!) Researchers also found that dishwashers cleaned better, as half of the hand-washers failed to reach an “acceptable level” of cleanliness. (Wendy Ruopp, 18.04.12)

We don’t have the biggest of kitchens here. Actually the kitchen we have now is just about as big as the one I had at our last apartment in America (woo-hoo). Traditionally however, it seems Germans don’t much care about their kitchens in the same way Americans do. It seems to be a utility thing – I think. German bathrooms are often huge, ours is potentially twice the size of our kitchen, while their kitchens are slightly larger than a broom closet. In America I would say it is about the opposite and I am not talking about American McMansions either. Those do not count as they are obnoxiously big in every way. What they lack in personality they make up for in square footage.

Anyway…this is how I generally like to clean the dishes.

In an attempt to use less water, I try to only wash up twice a day. I like to rinse all the pot, pans and just about everything I can so no gunk is crusted onto the dishes. Then much like that second video, I fill up the sink, which generally has been cleaned out,  with some water and soap arranging the dishes in the sink from the biggest to smallest, which usually corresponds with how dirty the dish is too. I have a large plastic basin that I put boiled water in and then use to rinse the dishes as I clean them. After I rinse them I just them air dry on the rack we have next to the sink.

If, by chance, I am the only one home and have a meal by myself I either save the dishes for later or washing them up with a little soapy water and a quick rinse using either the faucet or a large pot or bowl that already has water in it.

When I am not looking I think my husband still does dishes the old way, but then again maybe not. Wait I think he is doing it that way as I literally type this. I’m not perfect either – using the basin and the plastic bin is the goal. Hopefully we’ll get there before we are forced there by protective governmental usage controls. Hopefully that is a long way off, but who know – water is to the twenty-first century what logging and forestry were to the twentieth century: seemingly plentiful in the beginning but more a protected resources as the century wears on. The only difference here being that humans absolutely require water to survive whereas wood helps us to survive (and breathe).

Anyway, again…

My child minder, who is from Asia originally and has immigrated to Germany, as her husband is German. When she washes up, she has two basins she fills with hot water. In one goes the soap and all of her dishes are next to her in the same manner as above (cleanest to dirtiest). She in fact often does her washing up at her dining table because the space is much larger than at her sink. I do not know how often a day she does her dishes but it looks as though she might only use about four or so liters of water per basin per wash, not bad.

In the end, I don’t feel I have gotten anywhere near the bottom of this idea, but I still felt it was important to take it apart, even if only in part. Help me out, how do you wash dishes and why do you do it that way? Is this something you’ve ever thought about until now? I didn’t think about it until moving to Germany and seeing how different various people do the same task.

**Update, 2021: We bought a dishwasher for our anniversary about 3 years ago, in 2017 or 2018. It turns out, other than the constant disagreement about how to properly load the dishwasher, this device is well worth its money in stress reduction, time saving, and marriage-strife reduction. All that before the energy saving or reduced water consumption is even mentioned. Energy-star (or their European equivalent) label use less than half the energy of washing dishes by hand and usually only about 3 gallons (11 liters) of water for a full load of dishes. It was a very good decision, indeed.

Published by livingtheamericandreamineurope

I live in Europe, I am from America.

4 thoughts on “Something as simple as washing dishes

  1. In America, I always had a dishwasher, even in skanky college apartments. I HATE washing dishes by hand but since I cook a lot, I spend a lot of time doing it. Scots don’t like to leave the hot water heater on all the time (which drives me crazy, waiting an hour to get hot water) and my husband will wash dishes in cold water-unsanitary in my view- or heat water in the kettle, which defeats the purpose if you are trying to save energy. I just started turning on the hot water each morning and off each night-it’s our compromise. When we eventually buy a house, I am going to get a dishwasher! Another related topic- the use of the tumble dryer. Scots don’t have one or don’t like to use it, so they have clothes hung up all over the house, because the majority of days it rains. My hubby bought me one and I do use it too often, but I’m trying to get into the habit of hanging!

  2. I had no idea there were so many different (and strong) opinions about dish washing. I always just rinsed mine and put them in the dishwasher – until we moved to Germany. Now I wash them by hand in a sink that’s the size of my forearm. And I couldn’t imagine not washing the soap off! Every once in a while my husband will do the dishes and not rinse them enough and I’ll end up with soapy/bubbly wine and I have to pour it out – so sad!

    1. Our British friend will rinse his drinks glasses – but that’s it. I dream of a dishwasher, that would be AMAZING! Also, I’ve lived here for 6 years now and am still not used to the idea that when you move you’ve got to supply your own kitchen, sometimes at a great cost. Without knowing if you’ll get any of your money returned to you when you move – if the next inhabitant doesn’t buy your kitchen!

      Never mind the kitchen is often the size of a shoebox and the bathroom is seemingly the size of your bedroom.

      Thanks for your comment!

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