The glorious plastic wash basin, a classic form factor

Yes, I'm writing about a cheap plastic bowl. However this one deserves attention for it is the classic Asian wash basin. Oddly enough it relates to my experience with Alaskan saunas, world bathing and, if you can believe it, home composting.

Fifteen or twenty years ago plastic basins this size and shape were common in the U.S. Back then you could probably buy one at a local K-Mart or some sort of similar store but they were particularly common in Asia and Latin America. I've been looking all over for one that was just this right, classic, shape and size for some time now. They've become much harder to find. One finally turned up during a trip to the Asian "dollar" store, Diaso.

I didn't quite understand why this shape was so popular but then it hit me: This is a plastic version of a traditional wash basin (or in Spanish, palangana) that would sit on top of basin stand. Wash basins were once a common item that everyone knew and used. I remember them from cowboy/western movies. There'd be one in every hotel room above the bar.

They were in homes and hotels before plumbing was taken for granted. Originally the basin was porcelain, brass or enameled metal. It was used (along with a pitcher of water) for personal hygiene: face washing, tooth brushing, shaving, et cetera in rooms with no sink or adjoining bathroom.

Many years ago, an old guy who spent time out in the bush of Alaska, informed me that these plastic basins were common in the village steambaths of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. At the time I didn't quite get it but now it makes sense: Out in the arctic bush, many folks might not have indoor plumbing so an old fashioned wash basin wouldn't be so old fashioned. It's something that would actually still get used. In southwestern Alaska the sauna is where you'd go to wash up. So, if you're used to using a wash basin, it would be a natural extension to bring it into the bathhouse. The late twentieth-century plastic and metal versions are an extra bonus since it can be tossed around the steam room (or the cooler changing/washing room) without concern of breaking.

In Alaska either some distributor probably noticed that that they sold well and kept stocking them even while they fell out of use and became forgotten in the rest of the U.S. Either that or Southwest Alaskans got them from the Asian fish processors who are a big part of the economy of this region of the state. Sometimes small villages will have a cannery or fish processing plant that is the primary employer. The plant might have their own company store that supplies the entire village. Remember, no roads connect to this part of the state.. If the company is Asian-owned with Asian employees maybe some of the inventory is sourced from wholesalers in Asian instead of Seattle? This latter theory is supported by the fact that nylon scrubbing wash clothes (like the ones below) are also popular in many Alaskan steambaths. How would rural Alaskans know about these otherwise?

You can still get the scrubbing wash cloths in many Asian stores but ever since hearing this story and seeing them in use I wanted a basin for myself. This was mostly just to keep the tradition alive but I haven't been able to find any until recently when I discovered them to be well-stocked at Diaso.

Here's the label (verbatim) of the one I just bought. It's good for an "Engrish" laugh:

1. Do not reverse this product and use as chairs or stools.
2. Do not place it at the place which will become very hot. In particular near fire. If it is placed near fire, it may be softened and deformed.
3. If it is polished by a scrub brush or polishing powder, it may have a scratch.
4. Do not use it for other than the normal use. 

Now, it may seem weird but there is some basis for caution number 1. On a recent trip to Palace Spa, a Korean bath and sauna spa, these same type of basins were all over in the shower rooms. Traditionally the basins are used for washing while squatting  or kneeling on a stool. (Westerners don't know how to squat like normal people!) Sit, lather up, scrub like crazy and then fill the basin with water for a warm and sensual rinsing off. (If you are lucky, you have a partner to lovingly do this for and/or with you.) Palace Spa provides nice plastic stools for squatting on while you clean yourself but it's conceivable that the basin might sort of work as a stool. More likely it would collapse under the weight of a body so heed the warning. If you are using a wash basin in the sauna, or near a Japanese wood-fired ofuros/bath, then there's reason to pay attention to Caution number 2 as well. 

Of course the Korean spa now has shower heads on hoses. There was a time when many Asian bathrooms and bathhouses didn't have this luxury. You'd do all of your washing with just a tub spout and a wash basin. Still the traditional method continues. The basins aren't used much but maybe they are there to reassure the older customers that the older methods carry on? I plan on writing about my visit to the Palace Spa in a future post but for now you can see the beloved subject wash basin in the middle left hand side of the photo below. There was a big stack of the basins just outside the shower area ready for a long succession of bathers. (Should have snapped a photo. Darn it!)

You can see that there are tub spouts below the shower assembly. Look carefully. The only way to use the spout is with this correctly-sized correct-form-factor basin! You're not going to fit a bucket in that space. The ledge is specially built for setting the basin down just under the spout for filling up. What will happen if no one manufactures this wash basin anymore. It'd be time for an expensive remodel!

Our guest cabin in Alaska doesn't have plumbing. We use a dish washing tub as an all-purpose basin but it really isn't well suited for personal hygiene. The walls are too deep and far apart. This means you need to use too much water to get your cleaning done. I see now that the bowl-shape of the wash basin is just the right shape. You don't need to fill it with too much water but there's still enough so you can cup your hands together to splash water on your face. It's just wide enough to catch splashed water too. The shape and size were well considered to serve the purpose for which is was intended. This is why a wash basin is a wash basin.

I consider the plastic dish washing tub to be the rough analog to the Asian wash basin in so far as there are numerous different manufacturers but somehow the shape and size has become standardized. You can pretty much take for granted that any given dish washing tub will fit in your kitchen sink just the same way. It's nice and predictable. You can sort of stack wash tubs of different manufacturers. Does the government have some sort of oversight of this? Doubt it but, just as I believe all jars should have the same type of lids, maybe there should be.

Still some sort of "free market" standardization took place with the plastic wash basin as well. Over the years they have become increasingly flimsy (at least the new Diaso one is pretty insubstantial with a lot less plastic). In spite of this they have retained a standard shape and size. This helps if you are a bathhouse and you want to stack a bunch together or need to make sure they fit under a tub spout. But it also comes into play with another odd story related to this odd discourse on the wash basin.

My friend Florence is a woman who has been on the earth longer than most of us. She grew up in the Willamette Valley in a house with lots of siblings. She didn't have indoor plumbing until she was a teenager. Undoubtedly she was familiar with wash basins--so much so that she'd probably consider some of my observations to be ridiculously obvious.

Florence maintains a BIG urban garden. She's been composting for a long time, long before it was fashionable and the city encouraged it. She has a specific system for kitchen composting that I've always admired. She uses a five-gallon bucket capped with, what else but, a plastic wash basin. It works great! The 5-gallon bucket is large enough to be efficient in that you don't have to constantly empty it out; it takes a while to fill up. Contrast this with the purpose-built counter-top compost pail that was provided by the city of Portland. It works alright but it fills up every other day or so. Constant trips outside to dump it out are a little annoying. Plus the damn lid doesn't fit very well. It should snap shut but it doesn't. It can stink and strong odors can get out. Florence's one-off bucket and basin method probably only needs to be emptied weekly, if that.

 Her's works like so: A five-gallon bucket sits on a stool in her kitchen. A wash basin fits perfectly into the bucket as a lid. It wasn't planned that way but it's something that Florence discovered years ago. It fits so well that odors are kept out and fruit flies are kept in. Actually she usually has two wash basins stacked on top of each other sitting in the bucket. The top basin is used as a bowl for collecting scraps as she is cooking. Since its bottom is not resting inside the dirty stinky bucket, it can be placed on the kitchen counter, ready to collect food scraps. Lift up the other designated "lid" basin, dump in the scraps and nest the clean basin on top of the dirty "lid" basin.

It's simply a fantastic system. I like that it re-purposes a 5-gallon bucket (another great standardized plastic container. Don't get me started on that!) It's also useful for big food prep projects, like when Florence does her annual grape juice canning.  Florence has used the same kitchen compost system, bucket and basin, for as long as I have known her, well over 15 years.

When I was in college I used a five-gallon bucket as a kitchen compost collector. I didn't care too much then but really it was a messy disaster. It didn't work well because we didn't have a good lid for it. The original lid just didn't seal properly. My roommates became really frustrated with me when it became smelly and moldy. If only I had had the glorious plastic Asian wash basin!