My mom loved antiquing, and she was always on a quest to find the perfect antique dry sink for her collection. So, of course, I always wondered what the purpose was, considering we had plumbing and all. But my parents grew up in a town where not everyone could afford indoor plumbing, and outhouses and dry sinks were a way of life for many. The name sounds funny to those of us who always had indoor plumbing. But what really is a dry sink?
A dry sink is a piece of furniture commonly found in homes before the advent of indoor plumbing (as in above image from antiques.lovetoknow.com). It is a cabinet designed to hold a pitcher and a washbasin. It often had a backsplash, drawers, or shelves to store supplies, such as towels. The user would pour water from the pitcher into the basin to wash their hands, face, dishes, or even fruits and vegetables. When they were done, they would dump the basin outside.
In this article, we’ll talk about what a dry sink is. Then, we’ll take a look at the history of dry sinks and why you might want one if you are off-grid. We’ll also talk about some reasons you might want a dry sink in your home today. But first, let’s look at the specifics of what a dry sink actually is.
What is a Dry Sink?
A dry sink is a simple piece of furniture that holds a basin and a pitcher of water. A dry sink became very important because it enabled people to carry out basic hygiene tasks inside their home, such as shaving, washing their hands, washing dishes, or even food.
Dry sinks were definitely convenient since you didn’t have to cart your dishes to the creek to wash them. And even better, you didn’t have to go outside to wash your hands and face when it was cold and snowing. Dry sinks gained popularity as the understanding of the need for hygiene grew, and people were healthier when they could wash their hands more frequently.
The cabinet of a dry sink typically had a recessed area that held the basin and pitcher, which would keep water from spilling onto the floor. There was also a raised area alongside of the sink, where dishes could be placed to dry. Some dry sinks had backsplashes to protect the walls from water, as well.
Most dry sinks were built out of pine wood, but wealthier homes may have used hard wood instead. Often, the cabinet also had a hook or towel rod to hold the towel so it could dry.
Some dry sinks were built into windowsills.
History of the Dry Sink
Dry Sinks in the 1700s
History tells us that around the 1700s, the first sinks were simple washbasins on a stand. They often had a pitcher nearby so that you could wash your hands or face. You would pour a little water into the basin, wash, and then empty the basin outside. Over time, this simple setup evolved to be a little more practical.
Dry Sinks in the 1800s and 1900s
In the 1800s and early 1900s, the dry sink was introduced. The dry sink was a small cabinet with a recessed area to hold the washbasin or bowl. A pitcher or bucket was used to fill the bowl. Then the bowl could be dumped outside when you were done.
Dry sinks often had a backsplash to keep water from splashing onto walls or other nearby surfaces. Sometimes, they were made of marble, copper, or other waterproof material. Fancier dry sinks had a stopper in the bottom so that they could hold water. The stopper would drain into a bucket underneath the sink. Underneath the cabinet would be drawers or shelves to hold supplies such as soap and towels. Some homes would stash a chamber pot in the bottom of their dry sink, so they didn’t have to go outside to the outhouse in the middle of the night.
Dry sinks were used in bedrooms and kitchens, but it wasn’t unusual to find a dry sink on the porch, as well, so you could wash your hands before coming inside. Water was used very sparingly since all water had to be carried from the well or creek into the house. If you wanted hot water, you had to heat it up on the stove.
Victorian Era Dry Sinks
Victorian dry sinks usually had a flat surface that was made of marble. They may have had a small shelf to place your lamp on so you could see what you were doing.
People in the Victorian era didn’t bathe every day but did they did wash frequently. They often washed with cold water and believed it would help keep you healthier. You can see a video from Fenton Historical Center displaying a Victorian Era dry sink here.
The Beginning of Wet Sinks
Over time, a metal hand pump was added to the dry sink in wealthier homes, creating the first indoor plumbing.
Today, most of us can’t fathom a home without a standard wet sink. We’re just used to turning on the faucet, and water appears. But even if your home has modern plumbing, there are still plenty of uses for dry sinks today, too.
Modern Uses for Dry Sinks
You can still find antique dry sinks as well as modern replicas, but they typically aren’t used as actual sinks anymore. Today, you’ll find dry sinks used for decoration, storage, as buffet tables, and even as dry bars. In addition, you might want to use your dry sink as a nightstand, display stand, or even a potting table.
You can often find antique dry sinks at yard sales, antique stores, or rummage sales. However, if you are looking for an authentic antique dry sink, you’ll want to make sure you have the real thing and not a knock-off.
Price of Dry Sinks
A high-quality, antique dry sink could be worth thousands of dollars. Dry sinks in excellent condition with their original finish are worth much more than one painted, fixed, or redecorated. You might find an antique sink at an estate sale or yard sale for a hundred dollars if you know what to look for and where to find it.
New dry sinks can be purchased in Amish furniture stores. These handmade pieces are beautifully crafted and can be used as a real dry sink or for any other purpose. You can buy them for anywhere between $400 and $1800.
How to Tell If Your Antique Dry Sink is Authentic
Original dry sinks were handmade, so a genuinely authentic dry sink would have a few natural imperfections. On the other hand, knockoffs or modern dry sinks are machine-made, so dovetails, joints, nails, and other integral parts of the dry sink will be much more precise in a contemporary version.
An original dry sink will most likely only have three dovetail joints, and they will be handmade. On the other hand, a knockoff will probably have five or more, which will be machine cut. You can also look at the ends of the wood to see if it was machine cut or hand cut. Reclaimed wood will have old nail holes, and a true antique dry sink won’t have any MDF or plywood, either.
Nothing beats consulting an expert, though, so don’t be afraid to have your dry sink appraised.
Dry Sinks for Off-Grid Living
If you are off-grid, you might not have indoor plumbing. In this case, a modern dry sink would be an excellent addition to your home so you can still wash your hands, dishes, and food.
You can turn almost any counter or small table into a dry sink with a bowl and a pitcher. A neat idea is to use a gallon glass container with a spigot or spout. Fill it with water and set it on a shelf over top of a large bowl. You’ll always have water hand to wash your hands.
Final Thoughts on Dry Sinks
Dry sinks are a beautiful addition to homes for their aesthetic and historical value, but they also make practical storage and workspace solutions. If you can’t find a dry sink for your home, you can build one using the directions here.
What can I do with a dry sink?
Your dry sink can be repurposed into all kinds of different pieces of furniture. For example, you could use it as storage, a kitchen island, dining room buffet or bar, or even a coffee bar. You could even use it in a guest room as a real dry sink or on a porch as a potting table.
Can I paint my dry sink?
Technically, yes, you can paint your dry sink. However, if your sink is an antique in good condition, you probably should leave it as is so it can retain its value.
Is a dry sink the same as a Hoosier cabinet?
No, a dry sink is different from a Hoosier cabinet. A Hoosier was a kitchen workspace, which may have included a metal countertop and upper cabinets designed to hold and dispense flour.