“Please don’t make me a pearl diver,” begged ruined Chicago restaurateur John Raklios as he entered debtors’ prison in 1939. As someone who had worked his way up in the restaurant world, he knew there was no job lower than washing other people’s dirty dishes.
In restaurant kitchens dishwashers were long considered “life’s wreckage,” people so reduced by circumstances, drugs, and drinking that they could find no other work. In the 19th and early 20th century dishwashers worked up to 12 hours a day for a free meal and very little money. In addition, they were often tormented by cooks and others in the kitchen.
A stark portrait of the life of a dishwasher, based on the author’s firsthand experiences, is painted by George Orwell in his autobiographical book Down and Out in Paris and London. Luckily, at its best dishwashing could produce a zen-like state in which the mind is untethered from mundane matters.
The origins of the slang term “pearl diver” are as murky as dishwater itself. According to one historic account washers would clean dishes by feeling rather than sight. They would reach down into deep sinks “sorting the dishes into rows, washing them with a wave-like motion through the water” and then scooping huge piles onto a drain board. During busy periods when dirty dishes flowed into the kitchen “like lava from a volcano,” pearl divers quickly learned to “manipulate thousands of dishes at lightening speed.”
In literary and journalistic portraits, dishwashers were typically males unused to the better things in life and therefore relatively unbothered by floating scum, filth underfoot, rats, taunts, or low pay. Despite Orwell’s claim that the dishwasher “has no escape from this life, save into prison,” there were numerous stories of men who worked their way into careers as successful restaurateurs, such as Vincent Sardi, Morris Schwartzer of the NYC Biltmore Cafeteria chain, and Philippe Mathieu, purveyor of acclaimed French dip beef sandwiches in Los Angeles.
Afro-Americans or new immigrants who didn’t speak English often became dishwashers mostly because of their reduced job prospects generally, and were thus less likely to be from the ranks of the truly down and out. The same may have been true of women who washed dishes. Until 1911, when labor laws reduced the number of hours women could work, many dishwashers were women. Evidently they continued to work as dishwashers after reforms too, because state inspections of Michigan restaurants in 1918 revealed that for every two male dishwashers there were three women doing that work. Their pay, $1.20 a day, was rock bottom for restaurant workers then.
Mechanical dishwashers were invented in the 19th century, but were not electrified or widely used until well into the 20th. Though not the first female dishwasher inventor, Josephine Cochran is credited with devising the first truly practicable dishwasher, which she patented in 1886 [illustrated, 1912]. From a comfortable home with servants who performed kitchen labor, she was driven by a wish to prevent breakage. But her invention, which led her to form a company called Garis-Cochrane, ended up in hotels and restaurants rather than private households.
Before being electrified, generally during the teens and 1920s, mechanical dishwashers were manually operated, some requiring two people to turn handles that swished baskets of dishes through suds. The heavy baskets were lifted out of the water by pulleys which required considerable strength, sometimes resulting in the replacement of women dishwashers by men.
Despite strides in kitchen mechanization in the 1920s, it is notable that a survey of Rockford IL in 1929 found that only 16 of the city’s 179 restaurants had mechanical dishwashers. Even as late as the 1940s many restaurants still washed dishes by hand, often inadequately. Health department crackdowns following World War II found that scalding hot water and/or chlorine rinses still were not employed in many of the smaller restaurants across the country.
Though it’s unclear how many worked in restaurants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 522,900 dishwashers making an average of $8.19 an hour in 2008.
© Jan Whitaker, 2011