Can I wash iron vessels in the dishwasher?

How did people wash dishes before using detergent?

Given the breadth of the question, the following is more of a (roughly chronological) pot history than a comprehensive account of doing the dishes before laundry detergents became widely available.All highlights are mine.


Amongst other things: Sand, fats, ash, alkaline salts, squid bones, horsetail, mare's tail, soapwort, hay mixed with ash, running water, hot water, wire washer, cloth, baking soda, and sugar sand (Waste maple sap).

Note that cutlery was limited to a spoon and knife, at least in medieval Europe, with the knife being a personal item that was often only wiped clean after a meal. The "plate" used could also have been a trencher made of bread that was consumed after everything else had been eaten.


In the Encyclopedia of Kitchen History by M. E Snodgrass, dish washing is mentioned several times, starting with

The work began in the prehistory with the Sand cleaning ceramics and utensils at the nearest water source .

It is believed that the Baylonians were the first to figure out what we might recognize as soap, but they disagree on whether it was used to clean kitchenware (see here and here). Other ancient civilizations like the Egyptians also had soap. There were different mixes, maybe for different purposes. The Ingredients of these blends included two or more of: animal and vegetable fats, ashes, alkaline salts and oils.

During the Zhou Dynasty (1050 BC to 256 BC) were the Chinese

discovered that the ashes of certain plants can remove fat . This method is recorded in The Rites of Zhou, a sacred document describing the religious ceremonies of this early Chinese dynasty.

While the context suggests laundry, it's not inconceivable that they used a similar type of soap on greasy kitchen ware as well.

The Romans (but apparently not the Greeks) had soaps, but they appear to have used other substances to clean items:

In the Roman villa, slaves cleaned table tops and scrubbed stone and tile floors with a handful of sand. Another useful substance, squid bones, has served as a cleaning agent, as has horsetail (Equisetum) in general Pewter wort, called scouring frenzy or razor grass, a plant with connected stems that is suitable for cleaning wooden utensils, milk vessels and pewter .

We see it later in China during the Sui Dynasty (581-618) possibly the first visual representations of dishwashers at work .

Ceramic models of dishwashers.Unfortunately, there isn't enough detail to tell which washing aids (if any) they might have been using.

In the European Middle Ages there is a reference to the use of hot water :

In hospices, taverns and castles, kettles heated over an open fire served as wash basins for washing dishes and bathing, and for scalding pigs.

Snodgrass goes into more detail on medieval castles

The workers washed the dishes in a separate tub with polished brass pans Rhubarb juice or sorrel and scrub tin with Hippuris vulgaris, an aquatic plant with densely whirling shoots, commonly known as mare's tail . Fine china and crystal were carefully rinsed in a container lined with a soft cloth to avoid shavings.

She also quotes John de Garland's dictionary (1220)

Garland names the dishes that have been scrubbed the most: kettles and becdasne (sprayed pots with handles), jugs, plates, frying pans, basins and fèrals (water jugs), mortars, trenches, saucers, vinegar bottles, bowls and spoons, grates, graters, Meat hooks and chafing dishes.

and adds

The Flushed for simplicity the cook or servant often Dishes on a wooden bench by the fountain and pulled a handful of soapwort nearby to make it easier to remove grease.

Melitta Weiss Adamson, in Food in Medieval Times, also says

Cloth was used both for cooking and, along with abrasive sand or ashes and tubs, to clean kitchen utensils.

Finally (for the European Middle Ages), vinegar and sand "for cleaning and polishing flexible armor" were also likely used to clean metal pots, pans and utensils.

From the Renaissance period, Snodgrass says:

In a trough or stone tub, the dishwasher poured well water from a bucket or basin, or opened taps around one steady flow of water from a cistern or city well for cleaning and rinsing to allow .... The dreariness of working in a suffocating, windowless area remained the norm until the late 1800s. A number of devices helped the housewife or the dishwasher to clean and disinfect dishes. Dishmops, powdered abrasives and polishes, plate scrapers, and wire and rubber washers made the job easier ; A soap saver - a wire mesh box on a handle - kept the bars of soap from sinking to the bottom of the bowl and dissolving in a sticky mess.

Are also noted

Hay and ash cooked in an iron vessel loosened rust, which the dishwasher could then remove by scrubbing the pan with soap and sand . Stove surfaces, the bane of kitchen cleaning, required sandpaper and oils.

18th century English Navy,

In his spare time, the cook made one Make seawater-soluble dish soap by pouring potash oil, resin, isinglass, soda, and oxalate through soapwort in a tub in a perforated tray .

Somewhat surprising and in contrast to (for example) The American Women's Home (1869), another book (from 1879)

doesn't say soap because "soap is a very good thing for removing dirt from our hands and clothes, but it's a very uncomfortable thing to eat" - use it instead baking powder and Sugar sand for scrubbing

Brian Drummond

"Rhubarb juice" is of course an oxalic acid cleaner