Using a sponge and dish detergent is a convenient way to clean one's dishes and utensils, but how did people clean their dishes before the invention of dish detergent?
Given the broad nature of the question, what follows is more of a (roughly chronological) potted history than a comprehensive account of dishwashing before detergents became widely available. All highlighting is mine.
Among other things: sand, fats, ash, alkaline salts (which are often used in modern detergents), cuttlefish bone, horsetail, mare's tail, soapwort, hay mixed with ash, running water, hot water, wire scrubbers, cloth, baking soda and sugar sand (maple sap debris).
Note that, in medieval Europe at least, cutlery was limited to a spoon and a knife, the knife being a personal item which was often just wiped clean after meals. Also, the 'plate' used may have been a trencher made of bread which was consumed after everything else had been eaten.
The Encyclopedia of Kitchen History by M. E Snodgrass mentions dishwashing a number of times, starting with
The job began in prehistory with sand-scouring of pottery and utensils at the nearest water source.
The Babylonians are believed to have been the first to discover what we might recognize as soap but there are conflicting opinions as to whether it was used to clean kitchenware (for example, see here and here). Other ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians also had soap. There were different mixtures, perhaps to suit different purposes. The ingredients of these mixtures included two or more of: animal and vegetable fats, ash, alkaline salts and oils.
During the the Zhou Dynasty (1050 BC to 256 BC), the Chinese
discovered that using the ashes of certain plants could be used to remove grease. This method is recorded in “The Rites of Zhou,” a sacred document detailing the religious ceremonies of this early Chinese dynasty.
Although the context indicates laundry, it is not inconceivable that they used a similar kind of soap for greasy kitchenware as well.
The Romans (but not, it appears, the Greeks) had soaps but they seem to have used other substances for cleaning objects:
In the Roman villa, slaves cleaned tabletops and scoured stone and tile floors with handfuls of sand. Another useful substance, cuttlefish bone, served as a cleaning abrasive, as did the horsetail (Equisetum), commonly called pewter wort, scouring rush, or shave grass, a plant with jointed stems suitable for scouring wooden utensils, dairy vessels, and pewter.
Ceramic models of dishwashers. Unfortunately, there isn't enough detail to determine what washing 'aids' (if any) they might have used.
Moving on into the European Middle Ages, there is a reference to the use of hot water:
At hospices, taverns, and castles, cauldrons heated over an outdoor fire functioned as sinks for dishwashing and bathing and for scalding pigs.
Snodgrass goes into more detail for medieval castles:
workers washed crockery in a separate tub, polished brass skillets with rhubarb juice or sorrel, and scoured pewter with Hippuris vulgaris, an aquatic plant with densely whorled shoots commonly called mare’s tail. Delicate china and crystal were rinsed carefully in a vessel padded with soft cloth to prevent chips.
She also cites John de Garland’s Dictionary (1220)
Garland names the dishes that were most frequently scrubbed: cauldrons and becdasne (spouted pots with handles), pitchers, plates, frying pans, basins and fèrals (water jugs), mortars, trenchers, saucers, vinegar bottles, bowls and spoons, gridirons, graters, meat hooks, and chafing dishes.
For convenience, the cook or servant often washed dishes on a wood bench by the well and pulled handfuls of soapwort planted nearby to facilitate removal of grease.
Also, Melitta Weiss Adamson, in Food in Medieval Times, says
Cloth was used both for cooking and, along with scouring sand or ashes and tubs, for cleaning the kitchenware.
Finally (for the European medieval period), as vinegar and sand were "used to clean and polish flexible mail armor", they were probably also used to clean metal pots, pans and utensils.
From the Renaissance period, Snodgrass states:
In a trough or stone sink, the dishwasher poured well water from a bucket or basin or opened faucets to admit a steady flow of water from a cistern or town fountain for cleaning and rinsing....The dreariness of the job in a stifling, windowless area remained the norm into the late 1800s....A series of devices aided the housewife or scullery servant in cleaning and sanitizing dishes. Dishmops, powdered abrasive cleansers and polishes, plate scrapers, and wire and rubber scrubbers simplified the job; a soap saver — a wire mesh box on a handle — saved the soap bars from sinking to the bottom of the dishpan and dissolving into a gluey mess.
Also noted are
Hay and ash boiled in an iron vessel loosened rust, which the dishwasher could then remove by scouring the pot with soap and sand. Stove surfaces, the bane of kitchen cleaning, required sandpapering and oiling.
In the 18th century English navy,
In his spare time, the cook made a seawater-soluble dishwashing soap by pouring oil, resin, fish glue, soda, and oxalate of potash through soapwort in a perforated tray into a tub.
Somewhat surprisingly, and contrary to (for example) The American Women's Home (1869), another book (from 1879)
says no soap because “while soap is a very good thing to take away dirt from our hands and clothes, it is a very nasty thing to eat” – use baking soda instead and sugar sand for scrubbing
When on a month-long kayaking trip back in the USSR, we did not bring dish detergent with us, so I have a peculiar opportunity to tell the history of soap from personal experience ;-)
You scrub dishes with sand to remove hard residue (e.g., the burned food strongly attached to the walls of the pot).
You remove fat using ash (we cooked on open fire, so ash was plentiful). You might be surprised to learn that ash+fat=soap, so it worked perfectly.
People still often wash dishes without dish detergent. Searching for the situation in India, I found a very detailed article on the market situation:
- “The Cleaning Edge”, by Alokananda Chakraborty, February 25 1997, Business Standard
(Ignore the incorrect 2013 “last updated” date at the top; the article is from 1997 as mentioned at the end and on the author page.) The market has changed a lot since the article was written 2+ decades ago (as has society: the article frequently mentions “housewives”), but it has some revealing data on what was used (other than detergent) in 1997 in India:
a market that has barely progressed beyond rudimentary home-made scourers. Even today, almost 70 per cent of housewives prefer free-to-use proxies like charcoal, ash and even foil medicine wrappers. And among the remaining 30 per cent the penetration of branded scouring powders is very low.
Globally, the dishcare market is predominantly hand dishwash in nature. Even in other advanced markets, the penetration of dishwashing machines is as low as 10 per cent. Of course, in India, the dishwashing machine penetration is minuscule.
For one, about 70 per cent of the Indian households did not buy a separate dish scourer – they generally use proxies like charcoal, ash, mud, or even detergent powder and bars for clothes.
It also discusses different forms of dishwashing detergents, which I just discovered may not be common elsewhere:
All these different delivery forms were associated with unique benefits: the powder is associated with abrasiveness, the liquid with the attribute that it is good for the hand, and the bar which combined the benefits of both.
(And the fourth one the article discusses, which is a paste.)
On how much detergent there was even in the 30%, and the circumstances in which more was needed:
Most of the scourers in this segment had almost zero detergent content in them but sold on the plank of their abrasiveness.
The first hint that there was actually a place for another new scourer was the fact that the existing scourers could not tackle the problem of burnt vessels or stubborn grease which mirchi, haldi and other kinds of masala housewives used tended to leave behind.
myriad branded and unbranded products along with proxies like mud and ash. That was fine as long as the housewife was using copper or brass utensils. But when she graduated to more sophisticated utensils like enamelled cook-and-serve utensils and non-stick crockery, or, for that matter, glass and chinaware the need for a more sophisticated dish washing medium arose
This may also answer your question to some extent: if not using non-stick cookware, glass or porcelain, (and if you don't have much grease, and if you don't care about what happens to your or your maid's hands,) then sand/charcoal/ash/etc. will actually do.
An Account of a Strange Kind of Earth, Taken up Near Smyrna, of Which is Made Soap, together with the Way of Making It (c.1695)
From Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), Volume 19 (free to read online).
Bringing Soap Earth employs 1000 Camels, every Day throughout the Year, or rather 1500 daily for eight Months; the four Summer Months being too hot for Camels to Travel.
An ordinary Soap House produces a thousand Dollars a year clear Profit, communibus Annis.
This article which was published in 1695 talks about the manufacture of soap in a manner which would suggest that soap was a common commodity, at least in 17th century Greece and surrounding regions (i.e. places where you would find camels for transporting it).
So I suspect that prior to the invention of modern dish detergents, people could have used regular, natural soap; and that soap has probably been around in various forms, for quite a long time.
And there are dish soaps on the market today, for people who prefer washing dishes with something more natural and environmentally friendly than detergents.
As for sponges, Greek fishermen have been harvesting natural sponges from the sea since antiquity:
The history of sponge diving in Greece dates back to antiquity. The sponge and its usage is mentioned in the Homeric epics of Iliad and Odyssey, as well as in the writings of the philosopher Aristotle. The philosopher Plato also refers to sponge as an article that was commonly used in bathing, mostly by the rich people.
And again, natural sponges are still popular with many people. In Tarpon Springs, Florida, where there is a prominent community of traditional sea sponge divers of Greek ancestry, natural sea sponges are still being harvested and sold in specialty shops.
Disclaimer: this is less an answer about the history but about the chemistry of dish washing - which I hope will serve as complementary info on some of the other answers.
I think a few points of chemical background may help understanding the historical solutions to the dishwashing question.
With the exception of burnt residue (for which mechanical/abrasive treatment is most efficient), dish washing is about cleaning carbohydrates (starch/sugar), lipids (oil, grease) and protein from the dishes.
- The carbohydrates are easiest: they are readily dissolved or emulsified by plain water, so no problem at all.
To get rid of the lipids, you can use an emulsifier (that term really just means any substance that helps form/keep lipid droplets in water). Soaps can do this, but also e.g. lecithin (remember reading: emulsifier soy lecitin - see the soybean powder in the comment. Although I doubt that historically edible substances were used much for dish washing - but some types of food already contain sufficient emulsifier so no additional emulsifier is needed for dish washing).
In alkaline/basic condiditons, fats (triglycerides) hydrolyze into glycerol and fatty acids which are deprotonated (anions) in the alkaline solution and thus have a hydrophilic end. These fatty acid anions act as emulsifier, so hydrolysis of a small part of the lipids is sufficient for dish washing.
Now, proteins that stick to the dish because they are denatured by heat (frying, baking - cooking also leads to heat denaturation, but due to being in water it doesn't stick to the dish as much) are the hardest problem for dishwashing. However, you can hydrolyze also these (for practical dishwashing: sufficiently to get the remainder off mechanically). Proteins hydrolyze easily in alkaline/basic conditions, but also in acidic conditions. Acidic hydrolysis is typically slower, though. A modern alternative is using enzymes.
Thus bases do help tremendously with dish washing. Two alkaline substances that have been around for very long time are
ashes (and their lye)
Wikipedia says about lye soap:
The ancient use of lye for soap-making and as a detergent is the origin of the English word, deriving from Proto-Germanic *laugo and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *leue-, "to wash." Relatives in other Germanic languages, besides their words for lye, include the Scandinavian languages' words for Saturday (laugardagur, lördag, lørdag), meaning "washing day".
Plaster: There is archeological evidence that Pre-Pottery Neolithic B humans used limestone-based plaster for flooring and other uses. Such Lime-ash floor remained in use until the late nineteenth century.
Lime (CaO) is not so good for dish washing, because its soaps [see below] are unsoluble in water, they form scum. This is why with hard water (containing much Ca²⁺) much more soap is needed than with soft water.
washing soda (Na2CO3) according to Wiki on dishwashing liquid was used before the modern dishwashing detergents were invented. It is the main component of natron, which was produced (among other uses also for washing and soap production) in ancient egypt.
Sodium carbonate became cheap with the invention of first Le Blanc and then the Solvay process, so we're talking 19th century here.
Soaps are the salts of fatty acids. They are produced by hydrolyzing fat in alkaline (NaOH or KOH) solution, e.g. lye from ash. For cleaning purposes, sodium (Na) and potassium (K) soaps are used. Being a salt of a strong base (KOH, NaOH) and a weak acid, they still react basic, so for dish washing they also have the property of inducing hydrolysis of protein in addition to being emulsifier for lipids.
Others have already given citations of ancient (Mesopotamia, Egypt etc.) knowledge of soap. Let me add that until sodium carbonate became a cheap industrial product, soap was a luxury article rather than a commodity (Ullmann's encyclopedia of industrial chemistry on Soap). From that I'd guess that the every-day dish washing was not done with anything so fancy*.
Also, not so ancient history from middle Europe (great-grandma's time, anecdata): Cast iron pans were wiped, but removing grease/fat was not even intended. If they were washed to remove grease, they were greased again immediately after to prevent rusting. This meant a taste to everything that we'd nowaday refuse as rancid but which was normal in former times (compare haut-goût). Again, burnt residue was and still is best removed with mechanical means: abrasives such as sand or steel wool.
Wooden plates were rinsed but also probably not washed to be totally grease-free. (Other cultures use one-way articles like banana leaves). In general, there was more cooking (and in general more soup/stew/porridge types of food) and less frying. And cooking pots are comparably easy to clean without (much) detergent if you start immediately or let them soak.
Hard on the hands So alkaline substances help removing lipids and proteins. But in that they do not distinguish between the lipids that protect our skin and the lipids that should be washed away, nor between the food residue proteins that should be hydrolyzed and the protein of our skin. Which is why they are "hard on the hands". Modern dishwashing machine detergents do use this (possibly also enzyme-based degradation/digestion of proteins). As liquids for manual dishwashing are supposed to be in contact with exposed skin, they are neutral to slightly acidic. To achieve this, instead of soaps other tensids are used (e.g. organosulfates). This leaves the emulsifying properties, but does not help with the proteins. Instead, more mechanical action (scrubbing) plus soaking as needed are employed. Emulsifying (surfactant) properties means they still remove the lipids from your skin (excess lipids are added to toilet soaps to leave some lipid on your skin, but for dishwashing this would leave a lipid film also on the dishes).
Side note: while alkaline chemicals such as Na2CO3 or real soaps are more dangerous to the skin, they are at the same time more easily biodegradable than their more skin-friendly replacements in the manual dishwashing liquid.
In particular, after neutralizing which will often occur rather automatically as we have lots of acidic food (think fruits, wine, vinegar, sour milk etc.), all that is left is the fatty acid (as it occurs naturally during degradation or digestion of triglycerides) and the salt of, say, citric or acetic acid (also occuring naturally). So small amounts of those soaps or washing soda or ash in dishwashing water do not raise concerns for feeding the "dishwashing pig" (German: Spülsau) mentioned in @Defrance's answer.
* Little House in the Big Woods (which although it is autobiographic fiction I think can be trusted on the matter of soap use) describes 1870s settlers in the US distinguishing between the holiday use of "store soap" and homemade "slimy, soft, dark brown soap that Grandma made and kept in a big jar to use for common every day" (probably produced from wood ash and animal fat - there's also a description of using wood ash for alkaline treatment of corn/maize). But soap is mentioned only for toilet use, not for dishwashing.