So what did people do before dish soap? Dish soap is a fairly modern invention, and liquid dish soap is even more modern. Yet before they came along, dishes still needed to be washed. 

Before liquid dish soap became available, what did people use?


The nearest I can find for homemade dish soap recipes are diluted lye soap. Is that what people used? It seems reasonable, if rather harsh on the hands. 

Yet in historical novels that I read, I find constant mention of sand.


In an old book from 1879 which details the beginnings of what would eventually become High School Home Economics, the washing of dishes is addressed. 

I blinked when I came upon this: 

We never use soap to clean any kind of cooking utensil.

The reason was this:

while soap is a very good thing to take away dirt from our hands and clothes, it is a very nasty thing to eat.

Well, I can’t argue with that! So what did the good housewife of 1879 use for washing dishes? Soda – known to us now as baking soda – and a bit of fine, clean sugar sand for scrubbing. As she goes on to point out, soda sucks up grease just as soap does, but it does us no harm to ingest a bit of soda – or sand, for that matter. Sugar sand is very, very fine and clean sand.

She does note that soda will remove gold leaf from dishes, so if your dishes contain gold, you’ll have to use a bit of soap.

Cleaning a wooden table or other unfinished wooden item

Sprinkle clean sugar sand on the table. 

Dissolve a tablespoon of baking soda in a bowl of water. Dip your scrub brush into the water and then scrub the wooden item well. Rinse with plenty of cold water. At this point, the item will be clean enough to prepare food directly on it.

I have definitely used baking soda and vinegar to clean really tough dishes, but I have always washed them with soap and water afterwards. I wonder if I’m wasting money to re-wash with soap?

Before dish soap, people still had to do dishes. What did they do?


To wash dishes

Put a tablespoon of baking soda in a washing bowl and pour boiling water over it. Add one dish, wash it well with a clean dishcloth, rinse it in another bowl of hot water and place in a wooden drying rack. 

Never, she says, wipe a plate with a cloth. Let it air dry.

By the way, as an added note – if water is tight and you’re serving sticky or messy foods, consider the ancient practice of trenchers, or bread “plates” under your food. However, the bread used for this had to be quite hard and stale, and so is best given to feed the dogs after the meal. Individual bread bowls are another option which can be eaten during the meal.

Another option is the Middle Eastern practice of eating directly from a common pot. While not something that would make most North Americans comfortable, it did produce fewer dishes to clean.

Just Plain Living


While soap is a very good thing to take away dirt from our hands and clothes, it is a very nasty thing to eat