Someone who has never used a dishwasher before would not immediately recognize the importance of the machine’s placement in a kitchen—near the sink, but not immediately perpendicular to an oven. It is a closed box commonly found to be approximately three feet tall and two feet deep, and requires access to plumbing and running water. It’s only “door” is one side of the box that detaches at the clasp of a latch. The door falls 90 degrees toward the ground on a hinge that positions the door perpendicular to its housing. Inside, two wire-frame racks sit with their wheels trapped on a track so that they can be pushed and pulled, horizontally, in and outside the dishwasher. The racks are wire-framed to ensure water and suds flow freely around objects during a “cycle” of sanitation and have been augmented with many small, stiff, upright wire prongs to guide the placement and distribution of dishes. When the racks are extended it is easier to see that in the bottom of the machine sits a large, heavy, plastic fan that whirls during a cycle to push water up and around dishes. Before “starting” a cycle, some variant of detergent must be manually added to a dispensary located inside the machine. The machine sanitizes dishes by heating water that is fed into the box via the plumbing, mixing the water with the detergent, and pushing the suds around the inside of the closed box with enough force to simultaneously strip food particles off of the dishes without breaking the dishes themselves.
The dishwasher in my house is black; it’s color and texture of the plastics and aluminum front coordinate with the refrigerator and oven. The inside is white, slightly discolored from years of use that expose the plastic to heat, chemicals, and—naturally—food particles. In the bottom-most rack sits a caddy for silverware. Many of the wire prongs are inexplicably bent in odd directions. Fixed to the door is a small housing the size of a credit card; it has a simple clasp that releases during a wash to deposit soap into the wash water—provide that you remember to fill it before starting the cycle. When the machine is running, its noises reverberate throughout the house. The sloshing of water running through it dominates the soundscape within a ten-foot radius. The machine is commanded by a modest panel on the outside of it, along the door’s front siding. After a load has been sanitized, a green light glows brightly on the panel to confirm its done duty.
In any other household, perhaps, the dishwasher is a sanitization tool. It performs human labor; it is a mindless automaton that augments everyday life in an effort to preserve water and time. The privilege of ownership comes at a price between $200 and $3,800, dish-loader not included. In my home the dishwasher is the most political object in the house. In the early days of our living agreement each house member vocalized the high value they place on a clean kitchen (dishes included). The house culture, consequently, reflects this in the rotation of biweekly chores that mediate communal spaces. My roommates and I share dish ware, and 3/4 of our collection dirties in day-to-day consumption. To ensure that dishes are always clean, two of the four chores in rotation deal with the dishwasher on a daily basis, either in the form of loading or unloading. A member’s diligence to these duties is tied to their relationships with other housemates—neglecting one’s duty to clean or unload dishes harbors a significant social penalty. The machine polices the individual’s duty to cleanup after oneself; it mediates the level of acceptable sanitation within the kitchen. When a house member neglects to move their dirty dishes into the machine, their action is perceived by others as rebellious to accepted norms and practices adopted by the community.
The dishwasher is by no means the only household tool used to mediate or control human behavior; it is but one that normalizes and standardizes notions of upper-middle class sanitation. The absence of a dishwasher within an American home reflects on the socio-economic class of the home’s inhabitants; the cheaper one’s dwellings, the less likely a dishwasher is part of the kitchen floor plan.
My partner and I are in the market for a new place to live in the coming year. We are making a point to eliminate from our pool of potential homes places that do not have a dishwasher. Perhaps this says more about our perception of an acceptable living standard than it does the real utility of an autonomous dish sanitizer.