How to wash the dishes like your grandmother | Old-Fashioned Living

I am really interested in doing things the old fashioned way. Herbal medicines. Growing my own vegies, making my own jams and pickles – and now ferments too. What I want to do is connect more with my life and to produce, as much as possible, the things that I then consume. At the moment, I am constantly learning new skills and experimenting, trying to get back to my roots – in the good ways. (Just because our great great grandparents might have been prescribing mercury for syphilis doesn’t mean we should do it.)

But there are some old-fashioned things that I think have some real use, especially in our over complicated society. Walk down an aisle at the supermarket and there are literally walls upon walls of different cleaning products – for the floor, for each different surface, for the dishes, for the dishwasher, for the fridge, for the oven. Look, we don’t need all this stuff, the chemicals, the packaging, the sheer overwhelming multitude.

You want to get back to basics? Here’s a challenge for you. Try washing the dishes as your grandmother and great grandmother would have done. Or like Daisy in Downton Abbey, if that floats your boat. Go to the supermarket and find the most basic bar of household or laundry soap that you can. Not the antibacterial kind, not the fancy fragranced kind, just the plainest, simplest one. It’ll probably be made with tallow. This is ok. Try and avoid ones with palm oil if you can. Velvet soap is a good option if you live in Australia.

To hand wash your dishes, scrape them to get rid of as much grease as possible. Then, place your bar of soap in your sink and start filling it with hot water. The soap will bubble a bit but it’s not like detergent. This is ok too. Take the bar of soap out. As you wash up the water will just turn soapy and grey. Don’t be alarmed – your dishes will still be clean. I was actually surprised at how radical and challenging it was for me to let go of my preconceived notion that if there weren’t masses of detergent bubbles then nothing would get clean… But I persisted and now I’m totally used to it.


If you have a double sink for rinsing your dishes (I wish I did) put a slosh of white vinegar in there when you’ve filled it up, just to help things sparkle. It’s not necessary though. I only add the vinegar for rinsing when I’m using the dishwasher.

What? Dishwasher? Ok, yes, I know my great grandma didn’t have a dishwasher because I don’t think they were even invented. (My parents have a dishwasher, but they’ve never used it, go figure). To me, acquiring a dishwasher for the first time a few months ago has been a huge boon, because I cook – A LOT – and am often the only person actually doing the dishes, because if I don’t there’s just no bench space to work on. This becomes truly dispiriting after a while, so to me the dishwasher is an amazing blessing – and guess what I use in it? Finely grated soap – about a tablespoon per load – and vinegar in the rinse compartment. I have never seen dishes so clean – I’m not kidding.

And what’s more – using a single, minimally packaged product for multiple things creates a big, positive follow-on impact for the environment, as well as simplifying my daily life.

Give it a try, even just for one day? Are you a radical non-detergent dishwasher already and you’re just surprised it took me this long to see the light? Do you have any grandmotherly household hints to share that can help us all get back to our roots?

Verity )O(

Categories: the hearth | Tags: , , , , , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “How to wash the dishes like your grandmother | Old-Fashioned Living

  1. How handy! Thank you for sharing this forgotten wisdom… i look forward to trying it out ๐Ÿ™‚

    • lilithsherbgarden

      Do let me know how it goes! Of course I’m sure that any given local council would have a fit ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. I once worked in a restaurant that used Lux soap to wash the dishes. If you put the soap into a plastic container with holes in the bottom it makes it much easier to add soap to the water.

  3. Marlowe

    I use vinegar on anything that is cooked on. First scrub it as much as possible, then let it soak with hot water and a huge splash of vinegar. Works wonders on my stainless steel pots and pans. They still look new.

    • lilithsherbgarden

      Vinegar is amazing stuff, isn’t it? There’s almost nothing it can’t do, it would seem…

  4. I’ve been using Sunlight soap (made from tallow rather than palm oil) and a luffa scrubber (homegrown of course) for hand dishwashing for a few years now (just like my Grandma, as my mum tells me). You can get little steel mesh shaker things to put the soap in to make it easier – I’ve been looking for a vintage one for some time but you can buy them new from New Zealand too. I love that the soap doesn’t come in a plastic bottle! And the piece of luffa can eventually go in the compost.

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