Long life

The quiet pleasure of washing up (and why I'm still buying a new dishwasher)

There's no real point to them, I think, but once you have one, they're terribly hard to live without

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

I have been having trouble with my dishwasher. It’s seven and a half years old, and it’s manufactured by a German company called Miele. Several important people told me at the time that anyone who was anyone had a Miele dishwasher, so naturally I bought one. I found it perfectly satisfactory until a couple of weeks ago, when it suddenly stopped working; so I called up Miele and they sent someone to investigate. He said he’d repaired it and charged me £117 for the visit. But when I turned it on afterwards, the lights fused. So another Miele man came and said that his colleague hadn’t noticed that it was in fact a wreck and would need £500 spending on it for it to work again. So I took his advice and, instead of getting it repaired, ordered a new Miele for £599, the cheapest one on offer. This is due to arrive next week. Meanwhile, there is still a large mound of dirty crockery waiting for attention.

This has got me wondering whether there is really any point in dishwashers. Of all the labour-saving appliances developed in the last century, it is perhaps the least useful. Washing up by hand is not particularly burdensome — it can even be quite pleasant and therapeutic. Yet once you have a dishwasher, it is impossible not to use it. If you have only one dirty coffee cup to wash, something prevents you from rinsing it under the tap. Into the dishwasher it must go. And there it must languish until the machine is full and the long washing cycle begins.

Apart from the fact that it takes much longer to wash the dishes in a machine than to do it by hand, it is doubtful whether it saves much labour. There is the wearisome business of loading and unloading it. This is not only bad for the back if the dishwasher, like mine, is on the floor; it is a long and challenging process. There are some enviable people who just chuck the plates into it any old how, but I am not one of them. Something compels me to arrange all the crockery in neat rows by size and function, and this demands time and concentration. It is also a cause of much tension if someone else, trying to help, loads the dishwasher in a less ordered way.

It’s not even as if dishwashers always do their job properly. Time and again they whirl away for a couple of hours and then yield smeared glasses and stain-encrusted dishes that have to be washed again under the tap. In the early days, when dishwashers were still known as washing-up machines, it was advised that every item should be rinsed before being put into them, which seemed to defeat their principal purpose. This is still a precaution that should be taken if a happy outcome is to be guaranteed.

The first domestic dishwasher similar to today’s, which included a rotating sprayer and a wire rack to hold the crockery, was invented in 1924 by an Englishman, William Howard Livens, who is best known for having created the ‘Livens Projector’, a device for delivering poisoned gas into the German trenches during the first world war. It didn’t catch on, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the use of dishwashers became widespread in Europe and the United States. Now they are more or less ubiquitous. Yet their shortcomings are not going unrecognised.

The grandly named Dr Raul Pérez-Mohedano of Birmingham University and a team of researchers have been studying how to make them work better, and they have reached the conclusion, after exhaustive research, that plates stacked in a circle round the cutlery basket would emerge much cleaner than those stacked in straight lines, as they are now. Maybe that is so, but I suspect that it will only make the task of the stacker even more arduous than it is already. There seems to be no satisfactory solution to the dishwasher problem, but we are now irrationally addicted to these machines, so they will be spared the oblivion of other such ill-conceived kitchen appliances as the electric carving knife. The best we can do to lessen the drudgery of loading and unloading is to use them as permanent storage places for our tableware, leaving everything inside them until the table needs laying for the next meal. A better option still would be to rediscover the forgotten pleasures of gentle washing-up.

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  • davidshort10

    This isn’t on the Kindle version of the Spectator? Why not? It usually is. Kindle is the cheapest way to access the Spectator. Will return to a full print and electronic sub when either Andrew Brillo Pad Neill is removed from the md-ship or he dies. I gave up subscribing when he was appointed, after being a loyal subscriber for 25 years. I agree with someone who used to work with him who said: ‘I disapprove of Andrew Neill and all his works.’ The Barclays kept him away from the Telegraph but now that has sunk badly.

  • Damaris Tighe

    Alexander, a dishwasher is an essential piece of kit. But a bit of advice – just go for the least expensive brand & basic model. They do dishes just as well as your Miele (how many programmes to wash cups & pans do you need?) & replacing them will cost only slightly more than repairing your posh model.

  • Dodgy Geezer

    …I found it perfectly satisfactory until a couple of weeks ago, when it
    suddenly stopped working; so I called up Miele and they sent someone to

    I also have a Miele dishwasher. Nice, aren’t they?

    Mine also stopped working a couple of weeks ago. The on-off button wouldn’t stay in. However, because I am not a journalist, and understand engineering, I was able to replace it at a cost of £12.

  • Robert Allen

    Owned one
    for 30 years and it has yet to be opened. The Boss insists on washing
    everything ‘properly’ which unfortunately means I have to dry.

  • Helen of Troy

    Apart from the fact that it takes much longer to wash the dishes in a machine than to do it by hand, it is doubtful whether it saves much labour.
    That must be the whisky talking, Alexander: it can’t be experience. I missed a date once (no big deal) because for some reason I still can’t understand, we didn’t have a dishwasher in the house and I had to take half my evening washing up the detritus of four persons’ meals. As it is, just washing the glasses each day (they would not fit in the dishwasher or they would be chemically frosted by it) takes a good number of precious minutes I’d prefer to expend on something else. Internet commenting, for instance : )

    if the dishwasher, like mine, is on the floor
    Aren’t they all???!! I have never seen nor heard of an above-ground never mind overhead dishwasher! Were you half asleep and still dreaming when you wrote this?

    whirl away for a couple of hours
    You need to move to America, son. As with your laundry machines, they seem to do the work half as well in twice the time. I do feel sorry for you. It’s that wretched British overtaxation, you see, which means that the struggling manufacturer has to charge you more for giving you less. I hate socialism with a passion.

  • William Cameron

    I do most things in my dishwasher with a few exceptions. Over the years in different countries in Europe, the Middle and Far East I’ve had various brands (Miele, Bosch, Zanussi, Siemens) and they’ve all done a pretty similar and satisfactory job; my current Siemens has been going for 14 years without incident; in another house I have abroad my Zanussi conked out (cracking plastic components because of hot climate I think) after about 5 years, now changed for a Bosch which has been working fine for about 2 years so far. In earlier years, anything with egg was a problems because the detergents did not seem to cope with the denatured protein very well; modern dishwasher tablets seem to deal with this much better. The only things I pre-rinse before popping into the machine are anything which fish has been in contact with as this starts to “pong” very rapidly – as I use my machine only every 2 or so days this would otherwise be a problem. I don’t use the machine for lead crystal glassware, most pots and pans (they take up too much room) and only occasionally for silver cutlery – although when I do use my ‘good’ cutlery on occasion I tell myself it won’t matter and pop in in anyway – so far no ill-effects. I would certainly not now willingly be without a dishwasher, even though I do wash certain items by hand, apart from lead crystal and most pots and pans 🙂 I agree that ‘expensive’ brands are a bit of a waste of time though as all well-known brands do a similar job, One of the worst and least reliable stereo systems I ever had was a B&O set-up costing an arm and a leg and Loewe TVs and recorders whilst elegant and wonderful technically (I’ve had a few) aren’t very reliable in my experience.

  • Teacher

    I have never got over the thrill of removing clean dishes which I did not have to wash, or worse, dry, myself from my first dishwasher. This was a cheapo brand cupboard sized dishwasher bought from Iceland, the frozen food store, when it used to be called Bejams. So:- a truly bottom of the range consumer experience. Nevertheless, the sheer pleasure of removing that shiny crockery and glassware has never gone away and six dishwashers later I still have a frisson of pleasure at removing the shiny tableware. Being shallow delivers its own superficial rewards!

  • rorysutherland

    I think the photograph above this piece illustrates very well the less salient but equally valuable function of a dishwasher – it serves not only to wash dishes but also to keep unwashed crockery/cutlery pleasantly out of sight and smell.

    If I suddenly became immensely rich, I might get rid of my washing machine and have everything professionally laundered. But I would still keep a dishwasher. I might pay someone else to come in and empty it once a day, but I do really enjoy stacking the thing…. or, better still, completely restacking it in a very slightly more efficient formation after my wife has filled it, thereby fitting in one extra mug and an additional bowl. This simple act demonstrates the superior spatial judgement provided by the Y-chromosome.