I was amused to note on this subject a recent poll, set in motion by the makers of automatic dishwashers, to find out why their market seemed to have reached saturation. Horror of horrors, people aren't buying. In the European country in question (not the United Kingdom), 97 per cent of households have a washing-machine, 98 per cent have a refrigerator, but fewer than one in five kitchens has a dishwasher. Given the demographics of the day, this is not because there is a copious supply of teenagers to do the dirty work under compulsion; nor is it because the country is too poor to afford such labour-saving devices.
Eighty per cent of men, and 75 per cent of women, are "not bothered" by washing up. Apparently this is a routine task which causes few domestic rebellions. I mean, next to washing windows or ironing, washing up is small beer. Far more disturbing are, for instance, sweeping and vacuuming.
What's more, one in 20, of either sex, find settling down at the sink positively agreeable. A sociologist who has studied the survey, one Mr Kaufmann, had dubbed these as "sensual acquaphiles". Want to cool down and relax? Might as well wash up as bathe or swim.
According to Mr Kaufmann, these people feel that "washing up is a daily ritual of purification". No wonder the manufacturers are unhappy. The dishwasher is hardly an object of sensual satisfaction. Why, they ask, is this the last domestic task to yield to mechanisation? And what can be done about it?
As with most domestic objects, there is a vast lore of the dishwasher of which you and I are probably ignorant. I've seen it happen, but I never knew that a considerable percentage of washers- up do the job twice: once scrupulously by hand, and once by machine. But thanks to sociology, we now know that dishwashing is one of those domestic tasks which represent a form of compromise in many marriages. That is, it is a "negotiable" activity, one in which the two partners agree on a division of labour: say, you do the cooking and I'll do the washing- up. Says Mr Kaufmann in monitory tones, the dishwasher "imperils a ritual which guarantees a certain equilibrium" in the family.
Well, you and I can think of a number of other reasons why a dishwasher is not a must. In the first place, it is an expensive and not always reliable machine. Mine, in the South of France, is prone to all sorts of refusals to obey. Perhaps it is the victim of having so many programmes built into it (ecological, half-filled, not very dirty, etc) that it gets confused. This never happens on the other side of the Atlantic, where my giant, 25-year-old dishwasher (built in the days when appliances were designed to last a lifetime) continues to churn and produce immaculately washed dishes and all the rest of the kitchen clutter.
When I say "expensive", I mean in relation to other kitchen necessities: a mixer, a toaster, a coffee-grinder. Not only does a good dishwasher cost, on average, the equivalent of a month's wage, it is also not usually particularly well designed for the task at hand. This is a new development, for my old, American machine takes it for granted that the only sort of person who'd invest in such a machine is one who cooks a great deal and for a great many people. But today the manufacturers seem to think the only users of dishwashers are beautiful people, a couple, with perhaps one ultra-sanitary child, and the weekly dinner party for four.
Then there is the problem that most kitchens were built, counters, cabinets and all, before the creation of the dishwasher. Again, our flash designers have made them small enough to fit under existing counters. Sorry, gentlemen, you are wrong: such a dishwasher won't do for me. This general mania for miniaturisation, for imagining that most of us work in a kitchen made for just two of Snow White's seven dwarves, is a positive disincentive for generous cooking. And where is the manufacturer who has understood that wine glasses have stems and are taller than tumblers?
Finally, its uses are very limited. Any two-person household that uses a dishwasher is plain batty, and a fortiori, bachelors, unless they entertain grandly and nightly. One should certainly not cook in function of washing- up, and there's a lot of cooking (eg casseroles) for which a dishwasher is of the utmost inutility.
But it is the psychological, intersexual, argument that most interests me. Does anyone truly think, in our politically correct society, that household tasks are apportioned by agreement? What household functions in so orderly a fashion that logic obtains? In my house, there has always been only one rule on the subject of dishwashing: that the one who cooks doesn't do it. (This has its downside, too, for it encourages some to make more of a mess cooking than is strictly necessary.) Then, too, isn't marriage a taxing enough institution that such matters of washing-up are really, alongside emotion, fidelity, how to bring up Junior, what's wrong with your parents, so you lost your job again, trivial?
Mr Kaufmann won't have any of that. He says that a dishwasher is no advantage to the husband. It may allow him to sit back after dinner and watch the telly, but what domestic tasks will await him on the morrow? Look after baby? Do the toilets? Iron the indelicates? No, I think as with most elements in the gender wars of today, washing the dishes is a red herring. Who gives a damn who does it - machine, child, charlady, her, me - so long as it is done?