How to Wash Dishes by Hand (Even Without Running Water)

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In most homes, you only have to wash dishes from a proper dinner for 10 at Thanksgiving. I have to do it every single day. And I want my dishes to sparkle! So I follow a vintage method to get my dishes clean.

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How To Wash Dishes By Hand

Scrape all the food and soak the cooking utensils. Fill the sink with hot, soapy water. Wash the glasses first, then the silver, the china, and the pots, pans, and cooking utensils last. Rinse with the hottest water you can manage, to make drying easier. Dry the glasses and silver immediately with a clean lintless towel to polish them. Put everything away when it is dry.

Vintage Instructions On How To Clean the Kitchen

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America’s Housekeeping Book is the #1 book for learning how to clean like a vintage housewife, although its routines and suggestions date back to the WWII housewife! This book was quite popular and went through several reprints thanks to its comprehensive approach to caring for the home.

America’s Housekeeping Book is also the basis for the 1950s housewife routine online, which originated from Jen But Never Jenn in 2010. She used a routine from a book for newlyweds, The Bride’s Reference Book, which used the housekeeping routines from America’s Housekeeping Book (at least according to MY copy!)

However, there are other vintage homemaking books with step-by-step instructions for dishwashing. Here are some of my favorites:

Supplies To Wash Dishes By Hand

These tools and supplies should be stored at the sink, where they are easily accessible:

  • Rubber plate scraper
  • Roll of paper towels or crumpled brown paper
  • Dishpan or sink drain plug
  • Dish soap — you can use modern liquid dish soap, or old-fashioned Ivory soap in bars or flakes, or make your own with washing soda to soften the water and soap powder.
  • Rubber gloves (optional — but necessary to avoid the dreaded dishpan hands!)
  • Dishcloth, cellulose sponge, dish brush, or dish mop
  • Mild scouring powder — non-abrasive
  • Steel wool pad
  • Bottlebrush
  • Brush for coffeemaker
  • Silver polish
  • Rouge cloth
  • Metal polish
  • Dish drainer
  • Dish towels
  • Hand lotion

An adequate supply of hot water is essential for quick and thorough dishwashing. If you do not have running water, begin by boiling kettles or pots of water to use to heat your dishwater.

If your home is in a hard-water district and you do not have a water-softening system, add a small quantity of some good water-softening compound to the water for washing and rinsing dishes.

Two drainboards are better than one, so that soiled dishes may be stacked at the worker’s right and the dish drainer at her left. This arrangement cuts down waste motion. If the sink is equipped with only one drainboard, a working surface of some sort is needed on the other side. An inexpensive serving table on wheels which may be stored elsewhere should be used for stacking soiled dishes and the drainboard should hold the dish drainer.

Before You Wash The Dishes

Put Away Food

Put leftovers away in proper containers. 

Check and reorganize foodstuffs that were used during preparation. 

Putting away all of the ingredients used in preparing food BEFORE you sit down to a meal is an essential vintage kitchen habit. Properly storing and caring for food reduces food waste and spoilage, something we should all consider a patriotic duty.

Soak The Cooking Utensils

Put the cooking utensils to soak now, if you haven’t already.

  • Use cold water in utensils that have held milk, egg or cheese mixtures, or dough
  • Use hot water in utensils that have held syrup, frosting mixtures, candy, etc.
  • Use hot soapsuds in greasy utensils

Scrape And Rinse The Dishes

Scrape dishes with a rubber plate scraper or use paper towels to wipe the refuse into the garbage pail. (I use an old rubber spatula.)

Rinse dishes with hot water.

Stack dishes according to size and shape, on the right-hand drainboard or the left-hand, if you are left-handed. You can reverse the sides easily, just maintain the order of the steps.

Washing Dishes By Hand

Prepare Hot Soapsuds

Fill the sink or dishpan with hot water and a measured amount of soap. Use 2 dishpans if you are trying to save water. By using 2 dishpans and a good drainboard, you can wash dishes without plumbing or running water. 

Mild soap is the best choice for dishwashing because it is easy on both hands and dishes. Dumping soap in the dishpan is wasteful. Find out how much is needed to produce a lively suds after softening the water, and measure the soap thereafter.

Wash The Dishes

Wash in any preferred order. The usual order is:

  • Glassware
  • Silver
  • Dishes
  • Cooking utensils

Change the suds frequently. Dirty water won’t make dishes clean.

Reserve scouring powder and steel wool or similar metal cleaners for use on pots and pans— never subject fine china to such harsh treatment.

Rinse The Dishes

Put the drainer on the drainboard or in a dishpan. Stack the dishes in the drainer as they are washed. Use the dishpan-and-drainer method if you don’t have plumbing or running water.

Rinse immediately with hot, not scalding, water so that the soapy film won’t dry on the dishes. A spray attachment for the faucet makes easy work of this if the drainboard runs back into the sink properly. 

If you have no drainage, then pour hot, near-boiling water over the drainer as it stands in the dishpan. Remove the drainer from the dishpan without touching the water, let it drip for just a moment, and set it to the side to begin drying. Don’t try to empty the dishpan until the water cools.

You can empty all the dishpan’s rinse water into a bucket and use it to water your garden, or you can often reuse water used to rinse the glasses and silver to rinse the china during the same dishwashing episode, and THEN use it for secondary purposes.

Dry The Dishes

Dry glassware and silver with clean, lintless towels. Give them a good polish.

If the china, pots, pans, and utensils are rinsed with hot water they will dry by themselves and can be put away at your convenience.

After You Wash The Dishes

Put Away The Clean Dishes

After all your hard work, don’t leave the dishes by the sink to get spattered and dirty while people cook the next meal!

Clean The Sink

Refill the sink or dishpan with hot soapsuds.

Wash the work surface where the dirty dishes were stacked, the dish drainer and the drainboard. Clean around the sink. 

Wash the sides and bottom of the sink or dishpan. Wash the outside of the dishpan.

Drain the sink or dishpan, put in the dishcloth, dishmop, or sponge, and any brushes that you used. Pour boiling water over them and let them sit for a minute.

Squeeze out the dishcloth, dishmop, or sponge, shake out the brushes, and hang out in the sun. If you have a dishmop or long-handle brushes, stick them handle-first into a jar to hold them upright. If you can’t hang them outside, hang them in your kitchen window.

Drain the sink or dishpan, rinse it once more, then wipe the sink or dishpan dry with the dishtowel that you used on the clean dishes.

Put away all of your dishwashing supplies, preferably out of sight.

Flush scalding water down the drain, if you have used it!

What About The Rest Of The Kitchen?

At least once a day, you should also clean the kitchen, usually after you have prepared most of the food to cook later in the day. 

Special Care Of Dishes and Kitchenware

Special Care Of Glassware

Rinse glasses that have held milk with cold water before washing. If they are sticky, rinse with lukewarm water, never hot.

Use a rubber pad at the bottom of the sink or dishpan to prevent chipping.

Use a pad of Turkish toweling to drain fine glassware.

Never subject glass to sudden, extreme changes in temperature. Glasses that held an iced beverage must not be washed or rinsed with very hot water.

If two water tumblers stick together, do not try to force them apart. Fill the inside one with cold water and set the outer one in warm water. They will separate almost at once.

A few drops of ammonia in the final rinse water will make glass sparkle. Do not use this on metal-trimmed glass.

Cloudy glass may be caused by scratches or a film of grease or a soap film from hard water.

To remove a mineral deposit from the bottom of glass pitchers, shake tea leaves and vinegar in the pitcher until the deposit disappears.

Cloudy glass vinegar cruets can be cleaned by allowing a dilute solution of household ammonia to stand in them for a short time.

Cut glass requires special care: 

  • Wash each piece separately.
  • Use a soft brush, mild soap, and warm water.
  • After drying, place on Turkish toweling so that excess moisture will be absorbed.
  • For brilliant luster, dip the outside, while slightly wet, in jeweler’s sawdust. When dry, remove the sawdust with a soft cloth or tissue.

Special Care Of Silver

Wash in mild soapsuds; rinse thoroughly; dry thoroughly.

Unless you are certain that the blades of knives are solid or soldered into the hollow handle, never immerse the handles in hot water or the cement will be loosened.

Separate knives, forks, and spoons and wash separately, to avoid scratching.

Light tarnish can be removed by rubbing with a jeweler’s rouge cloth or a treated silver polish cloth or paper. This should be done whenever a slight film of tarnish is seen, which is why silver polishing is included frequently on vintage schedules.

Salt will corrode silver very quickly. Open salt dishes and shakers should be emptied after each use and washed. Silver that comes in contact with food should be thoroughly washed as soon as possible after use.

Special Care Of Dishes

Avoid Scratching

  • Set each piece down carefully when stacking; the foot of a dish is not always glazed and may scrape the face of the one on which it is placed.
  • Never stack in high piles.
  • Stack dishes of similar size together.
  • Lift a dish from a stack, don’t slide it.
  • Never use harsh scouring powders, steel wool, or metal cleaners on dishes.

Temperature is important

Never pour boiling water over cold dishes.

Use care in warming dishes. Certain types of earthenware will crack if heated to a temperature of 90°-150°F.

Fine china deserves fine care

Use a rubber mat or towel at the bottom of the dishpan.

If dishes are stacked, separate them with pads of soft paper or cloth, or use rubber-covered racks instead of stacking.

Protect stacks of seldom-used china with special dust covers of transparent material.

Hang cups from hooks spaced far enough apart so that cups can be put on and taken off without hitting cups on either side.

Protect the spouts of teapots with crumpled paper, a piece of cardboard, rubber tubing, or a hollow cork.

Strong soaps, ammonia, or washing soda all destroy metal trim. Never stack gold- or silver-trimmed china, and wash only a few at a time to avoid scratching.

Special Care of Cooking Utensils

Glass and enamel utensils are given the same care as table glassware. If food is burned on or stuck to the utensil, soak it in soapy water until the food loosens, then remove it with a rubber plate scraper and wash as usual.

Earthenware utensils are treated like dishes. Metal utensils are treated according to the kind of metal.

Special Care Of Cutlery

Never let cutlery stand in water.

Wash blades first; if stained, use scouring powder.

Cutlery racks prevent nicked blades, bent points, and casualties of the cook, all of which result when knives are kept loose in a drawer.

Don’t use knives for prying.

To use a natural oil stone (8 to 12 inches long):

  • Hold the knife with its edge against the stone and the back of the blade elevated at a 20° angle. Draw the blade against the stone from heel to point, raising the back when the point is reached. Let the edge of the blade follow the stone.
  • Repeat, first on one side, then on the other, until the edge is keen.
  • Use lighter pressure for the last few strokes.

To use a sharpening steel:

  • Hold steel rigid in the left hand. Bring the heel of the blade against the end of the steel at a 15° angle.
  • Draw the blade down the steel toward you so that the point of the blade leaves the steel very near the lower edge of the steel.
  • Repeat, first on one side, then on the other, until the edge is keen (about a dozen strokes).
  • Another method, which is not as scientific, but which is effective and safe, is as follows: hold the knife and steel at the same 15° angle, but begin the stroke at the base of the steel and move the knife upward, ending at the point of the steel.

To use a twin set of metal discs: 

  • Draw the blade through the discs in one direction only

Special Care Of Woodenware

Pastry boards, cutting boards, rolling pins, salad bowls, and buffet accessories made of wood require special care. The more expensive pieces have a deep protective finish and stand up well under use if they are properly cared for.

In general, here are the rules that prevent warping and cracking:

  • Clean immediately after use.
  • Never soak.
  • Never immerse in water.
  • Wipe with cold water, scrub with lukewarm water and soap, and rinse with cold water. Dry thoroughly. Use very little water.
  • Never stand on edge while drying— this may cause warping.
  • Keep away from heat.
  • Never chill in a refrigerator,
  • Store in a dry place.

Never polish, rewax or apply shellac to woodenware. If a piece roughens, smooth it with No. O sandpaper.

Special Care Of Dishcloths And Dish Towels

Whether you use a cloth, a mop, or a cellulose sponge, wash in hot soapsuds and rinse thoroughly after each use. Hang up in the sun to dry.

Clean dishes are no longer clean after a soiled towel has been used to dry them.

Stains come out more easily if the dish towels are washed daily. How to wash:

  • Soak in clean cool soapsuds to loosen stains.
  • Use chlorine bleach according to directions for severe stains on white cotton or linen towels.
  • Wash in hot soapsuds.
  • Rinse at least twice in hot water.
  • Hang straight to dry— in the sunshine whenever possible.


America’s Housekeeping Book, Charles Scribner & Sons.

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