Dish washing was a laborious, time consuming, boring job, and one that was despised by women as soon as eating vessels were crafted and they felt the need to cleanse them.
Although he gave no indication of how the dishes were washed, one of the first accounts of the process being accomplished was penned by Peter Talbot in 1670. “And that there is no work better than other, to make water to wash dishes, to be a Sower, or be an Apostle, all is one to please God.” – Talbot, Peter. A Treatise on Religion and Government With Reflections Upon the Cause and Cure of England’s Late Distempers and Present Dangers. 1670. No location of publication given, probably London.
Mean jobs, such as dish washing, were sometimes hired out to a char-woman. “An experienced char-woman had been retained for the day to wash dishes in the background and revive the spoons and forks upon the sly between the courses; having received particular directions from Mrs. Gudge to dip them into pump water afterwards that they might not feel warm when placed before the visitors.” – Smith, Albert. The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole at Home and Abroad. 1848. London.
What, say you, is a char-woman? Per a debate published in Notes & Queries, the correct term should be charewoman, a woman hired to do a chare or chore. “Charewoman means a woman who does chares or odd jobs of work.” Notes and Queries. Aug. 18, 1860. London. The Imperial Dictionary, 1883, went on to clarify that a char-woman was hired on a daily basis, and Pickering said the American chore was a corruption of the English char, and in America he thought the pronunciation confined to New England. – Pickering, John. A Vocabulary. 1816. Boston.
No matter what the proper spelling, the most commonly found spelling is char-woman, and the term was still in use into the 20th century to designate a woman hired by the day to do housework. Char-women received little pay for their work, as one writer penned the phrase that they purchased a house beyond their means, and therefore, could employ no servants save a little girl to wash dishes. How sad that a grown, albeit uneducated, and untitled, performed the same labors as a small child, and probably for the same pay. – Percy, Sholto & Reuben. The Percy Anecdotes. 1826 London.
If one were employing a little girl to wash a family’s dishes, the question begs to be asked, how good a job did the child do when we consider the heavy pots of water that had to be heated and carried to the pans for the process? How poor must a family have been, to let out a little girl to do such work given the need for heating water around the fire? How might we assume the following advice was adhered to? “Always have plenty of dish-water, and have it hot. There is no need of asking the character of a domestic if you have ever seen her wash dishes in a little greasy water”. – Child, Lydia Maria. The American Frugal Housewife. 1841. NY.
Ah, gentle reader, men were mindful of the strenuousness of the task, and in 1850 the American Agriculturist stated a patent had been granted for a machine that could wash dishes. A man may have devised the machine and secured the patent, but when it was advertised to make readers aware of its coming on the market, the notice was placed in the section styled, “The Ladies Department”, of the magazine while the remainder was filled with crop reports and articles on newfangled farm machinery. July, 1850. NY.
“Few women have the courage after dinner, when the day is done, to wash dishes. That is drudgery. It means putting the cups and saucers, plates, platters, and vegetable dishes into a big pan of hot suds, rubbing them with a dish cloth, setting them to drain and wiping each piece with a towel. Noah’s wife’s dishes were cleaned in the same way and very probably Noah’s wife lamented her reddened and roughened hands as the wives of less distinguished men have done ever since. Probably, too, she found that her best pieces of tableware got scratched in the process or slipped out of her soapy hands and smashed into bits. It is not likely though that she bothered her head much about the condition of the dish cloth or the drying towels. Living, as she did, in that menagerie, she could hardly be blamed for not keeping everything sweet. If any of her daughters have bothered their heads much either it has been mighty little purpose, seeing that they have not greatly improved the process. Men that keep hotels, though, being able to get only the lowest class of help to wash dishes–what a comment that is upon us men that expect the wives of our bosom to do such work–found that the bill for broken china was ruinous. Guests insisted upon being served upon fine porcelain, and refused to eat from slabs of ironstone, so some way out had to be found. A machine was invented capable of being operated by anybody, and that could be trusted to wash thoroughly, rinse and dry the most delicate ware without chipping or breakage, all at the rate of 6000 pieces an hour. Think what an army of dishwashers such a machine must displace, and what an economy it must be! For not only is the hotel-keeper rid of the necessity of standing room and subsistence to that army, but of providing captains and generals for it, and of enduring the damage that it must inflict upon friend and foe alike, after the fashion of all armies.
The dishes are collected and scraped and then dropped into wire baskets with wooden interiors so arranged that the dishes stand on edge without touching each other. Pitchers, cups, bowls, and the like go into the centre. The basket is lowered into the washing tank, where hot suds, mixed with air, so as to present thousands of sharp cutting edges, are driven against the dishes wiht tremendous rapidity and force. They are washed in twenty seconds. A trolley carries the basket to the rinsing tank, where two souses take off the soapsuds. They drain and dry from the heat they have absorbed from rinsing water. China and silverware thus treated always look brighter and newer than if washed by hand.” – Frederic J. Nash, in Ainslees. The Home. Pacific Monthly. Oct. 1900. [Note 50 years has passed since notice of a patent was published]
What would women of 50, 100, or 500 years earlier have thought about such a machine? It is a reasonable bet that such contraptions were exceedingly rare in 1900 as various writers on the subject of domestic economy were still instructing in the proper way to wash dishes when the article was published.
“Put only a few dishes in the pan at a time. Do not use much soap on gilt china. Before beginning to wash dishes, have them all sorted and put in groups, keeping those of the same kind together. Wash, rinse, and wipe one group before beginning another. In wiping dishes the hands should not come in contact with the dish. Hold the dish in the left hand, having the twel between hand and dish. Never wipe with a towel that has become wet. Glass, silver, and china should present a brilliant surface when the wiping is finished. This can be done by washign them very clean, and wiping thoroughly with a soft, clean towel. The towels should be washed, rinsed, and hung out to dry after the dishes are finished. Pewter, Britannia, and block-tinware are often used on the table in the form of tea- and coffee-pots, dish-covers, and chafing-dishes. These can be polished with powdered rottenstone and oil, or oil and whiting, or in the same way that silver is polished. Wash the article first in hot soap and water, and wipe dry. Dampen a cloth with sweet-oil, and rub it over the article to be polished. Put rottenstone or whiting on a piece of soft, dry flannel, and rub over the oiled surface. Then polish with dry whiting and chamois. Steel knives are polished with hot soft soap, Bristol brick, and a large cork. Wash the knives in soap and water and wipe dry. Have a smooth board on which rests the blade of the knife perfectly flat. Dip the cork in the soap, then in the powdered brick, and rub the steel until all staines are removed. Then polish off with dry powdered brick, and wipe with a soft cloth. To keep steel from rusting cover it with sweet-oil or mutton tallow, and wrap in soft paper. To remove rust put oil and quicklime on the rusted article. After several days rub with oil and rottenstone or Bristol brick.” – Parloa, Maria. Home Economics. 1898. NY.
Blissful Meals, Yall, Kiss your Dishwasher next time you turn it on and poof, out come clean dishes. Now if we could only find a way the machine could unload itself and put the dishes away.
The Historic Foodie