We're Still Waiting On The Dishwasher Utopia

Today, roughly 75 percent of American households have a dishwasher. But this wonder of modern kitchen science still lags well behind refrigerators and microwaves — which are both over 95 percent. The automatic dishwasher was the high-tech promise of the 1920s. And the 1950s. And the 1970s. So why has the dishwasher taken so long to become mainstream?

We often think about the post-WWII boom as a time when every American suddenly went out and purchased every modern appliance ever invented. And while refrigerators and clothes washing machines were particularly popular during this era, the dishwashing machine simply didn't catch on that quickly.

In fact, if you flip through magazines of the late 1950s you're much more likely to find ads extolling the virtues of dish soaps being easy on the hands than you are ads for dishwashing machines — like the ad below from the April 14, 1957 issue of American Weekly. Even in the 1962-63 version of the Jetsons, the type of automated dishwashing we see is done by humanoid robots in a scrub-by-hand fashion.

We're Still Waiting On The Dishwasher Utopia

As we discussed last week, there are many different ways to measure tech adoption. Some people believe that we should track the amount of time it takes from invention (a really debatable concept in so many ways) to the time it's adopted by 25 percent of the American population. As I argued last week, the time from 5 percent to 50 percent seems more honest, as well as much more interesting.

In 1958, only about 4 percent of American households had automatic dishwashers. It wasn't until 1997 that over 50 percent of Americans had a dishwasher. It took nearly 40 years for the dishwasher to go from the tech of early adopters and the wealthy to something for middle class Americans. Compare that with TV, which took just 5 years to make that climb. Or the refrigerator, which took just over a decade.

The rise of the dishwasher was remarkably slow. As a point of reference, as late as 1971, just 18 percent of American households had an automatic dishwasher. Compare that with the refrigerator (83 percent) or the clothes washing machine (71 percent) in 1971.

We're Still Waiting On The Dishwasher Utopia

One of the first mechanical dishwashers actually dates back to 1850. But it wasn't until the early 1920s that the futuristic promise of the automatic dishwasher became firmly planted in the American consumer psyche. And it's all thanks to electricity. The percentage of American homes with electricity went from just 8 percent in 1907 to over 50 percent in 1925.

As homes became electrified, future-minded consumers got excited about all those electric toasters and electric coffee percolators and electric vacuums they'd be able to buy. And cleaning the dishes was going to be a snap when people used appliances like the electric dishwasher above, seen in the August 1923 issue of Practical Electrics magazine.

We're Still Waiting On The Dishwasher Utopia

About 3 out of 4 American households may have a dishwasher, but we arguably have quite a ways to go before we can declare this household technology as fully arrived. The "dream dishwasher" from the 1955 ad above is still very much a fantasy for most Americans. Many don't have a dishwasher, period.

Anecdotally, I certainly still consider the dishwasher a luxury. In the decade since moving out of my parents' house, I've only had one apartment with a dishwasher. And it's the one I currently live in. I got by just fine without one, but having one makes daily life just a little more tolerable.

Dishwashers simply aren't considered essential in the way that a fridge or a computer might be perceived. And that's okay. But when we look at it through a "history of the future" lens, it starts to seem a lot more like the failed promises of flying cars and dream houses. The adoption of the dishwasher is just one of many ways to gauge how close we may be to George Jetson's leisurely push-button future. Sadly, we still have quite a ways to go.


Images: Frigidaire dishwasher ad from 1959 via Remarkably Retro; Vel ad scanned from the April 14, 1957 issue of American Weekly magazine; Early electric washing machine scanned from the August 1923 issue of Practical Electrics magazine; 1955 dream dishwasher ad via Flickr