Originally published in The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2000
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- The world according to Sandra C. Steward is divided into two groups: those who throw dishes in the dishwasher haphazardly, as if lobbing grenades, and those who arrange their saucers, cups and plates with the eye of Michelangelo.
The Rambos and the Artists, she calls them.
Mrs. Steward, as it happens, is the leading expert on dishwasher loading at the leading manufacturer of dishwashers, Whirlpool Corp. She fancies herself an Artist. For nearly 15 years, she has devoted her professional life to the study of a subject others merely bicker about.
To prerinse or not? Forks up? Forks down? Do glasses go over the tines or between them? Can you really cook a fish in there?
In the age of two-career couples, domestic appliances are bearing the occasional fingerprint of a man. And unlike the vacuum cleaner, the dishwasher can't just be left to the hired housekeeper who comes in once a week to clean.
Often, men load the dishwasher as their contribution to a family meal. After doing one or two loads, the same guy who can't master a Maytag to wash his own underwear feels empowered: Nobody else can load a dishwasher half as well as he.
Enter Mrs. Steward. When asked to settle disputes, she smiles like a Zen dish master: "There is not a right way and a wrong way," she says.
But tell her that you rinse the dishes in the sink before loading them in the machine, and the smile evaporates. It turns out there is a wrong way, after all. Many wrong ways.
Scrape and load, don't rinse; the machine should do the work for you. Glasses should be cradled between -- not stuck over -- the tines of the dishwasher rack, she says. Flatware should be deposited randomly, with knives, forks and spoons mingled, some pointing up, some down. That way, water can flow freely among them. Items should be loaded according to size, with small things up front and big ones in back. That helps to disperse the detergent evenly.
Plastic should go on top, away from the most intense heat. Powdered detergents seem to work a bit better than liquid gels, she says, and unless you want a room full of soapsuds, don't even think about Joy or Ivory Liquid as an emergency substitute for dishwasher detergent.
So much for Zen.
Stemware and fine china should survive a dishwasher just fine, Mrs. Steward continues, but if you're worried about ruining your best china, run a saucer through the machine a few times first to see how it holds up.
And for best results, run the hot water for a minute before turning on the dishwasher, to ensure that your dishes get a hot blast (120 degrees being ideal for removing dirt at the start of the wash cycle).
Sponges, baseball caps, toothbrushes, hubcaps, computer keyboards and furnace filters -- these are some of the unusual items people put in their dishwashers. In all probability, none of them will hurt the machine, but Mrs. Steward stops short of endorsing these applications. And she is opposed to using a dishwasher to cook foil-wrapped fish, mainly because that's not what dishwashers are meant to do, though she has heard it comes out moist and tasty.
"Come here," Mrs. Steward says, "I want to show you my picture book."
She leads the way to a fat scrapbook filled with photographs showing dishwasher loads across America. Each picture is dotted with ink where Mrs. Steward has counted plates, bowls and cups. "This is one of my favorites," she says. "Have you ever seen so much plastic?"
But this is only part of her research. In a basement here at Whirlpool, half a dozen women work full time applying gunk (meat, peanut butter, eggs) with paintbrushes to dishes for laboratory testing of dishwashing technology. In another room, Mrs. Steward and others secretly watch (through one-way mirrors) focus groups washing dishes.
Her observations end up in owners' manuals and help the company design better machines. Still, Mrs. Steward doesn't hold out much hope that her work will end domestic quarrels.
"What are you doing?" Bonnie Komenda of Morrisville, N.C., asked one night after dinner, as her husband hovered over the dishwasher.
"Oh," said Joe Komenda, innocently. "I'm just rearranging the dishwasher a bit. You didn't get everything in."
"What's wrong with the way I put the dishes in?" said his wife, simmering.
The conversation, which both remember well, took place more than five years ago, just after the Komendas were married. Joe now realizes that it was a classic turf battle. "Everyone has had the dishwasher argument," he says. "It's all about control." He won it, too, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. His wife hasn't washed dishes since.
Robert Bruce Thompson of Winston-Salem, N.C., suffered a similar fate. One night, after a dinner party, he gathered up his wife's crystal -- which he says "belonged to her mother's mother's mother's mother, or whatever" -- and loaded it in the dishwasher.
"Are you insane?" Barbara Thompson asked. "You can't put 18th-century crystal in the dishwasher."
A quarrel ensued. Barbara argued that antique silver and delicate crystal weren't made to stand up to modern American dishwashers. Robert countered with a theory that he calls Dishwasher Darwinism: "Those things that cannot compete should die." Mrs. Thompson won the argument; Mr. Thompson does dishes the way she tells him to.
Some dishwasher arguments are messier. Three years ago, a busboy and a dishwasher in Key West, Fla., argued over the best way to load silverware. Unable to resolve their differences, the dishwasher went home, got a gun, returned to the kitchen and shot the busboy six times. The gunman is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.
Were she alive today, Josephine Cochrane might be the reigning expert on loading a dishwasher. She invented it, in 1880, because of dissatisfaction with the dish-washing performance of her hired help in Shelbyville, Ill. She spent years developing the first automatic dishwasher, which was powered by a hand pump.
The Two Dishwasher Family
Today, 60% of American households have dishwashers -- and some have two, one for dirty dishes and one in which to store clean ones (to eliminate the need to shelve them). Between 1994 and 1999, sales rose 30%, from 4.4 million units to 5.7 million, as home construction boomed and many people put in new kitchens. Today, Whirlpool has about 39% of the market, followed by General Electric (35%) and Maytag (19%).
The latest KitchenAid dishwasher, from Whirlpool, to be introduced in September, has 30% more dish space than the previous model and an adjustable top rack so big plates can be loaded on both tiers. It also has folding arms, slots for bowls and pots, clips to hold plastic cups, and a sealable pouch to hold pacifiers or cup lids. Depending on options, it will retail for between $550 and $1,100.
Won't all those gadgets and moving parts create more room for interpretation -- and argument? Not in Mrs. Steward's home. Her husband, Larry, a personal-property auditor, says he doesn't pay much attention to the dishwasher.
"I just sort of stick stuff in," he says. Then his wife moves it around.