Dishwashers put an end to drudgery … or do they?

By Maggie Lane

Josephine Cochran, inventor of the first automatic dishwasher.

Josephine Cochran, inventor of the first automatic dishwasher.

A dishwasher ad from the 1930s presents a housewife’s fantasy: a frowning man in an apron washes dishes as his wife lounges in the background, reading the newspaper. “If husbands had to do the dishes,” the copy suggests, “His Majesty” would pick up the phone and order a dishwasher from the Conover Company.

Whatever the ad says about women’s lack of buying power in that era, it makes clear that washing dishes has always been drudgery and a chore in which men haven’t historically participated.

So it comes as no surprise that a woman was behind the first successful dishwasher.
Josephine Cochran, an Illinois socialite, invented the first automatic dishwasher in 1886 to protect her china from breaking. As valuable as her heirloom china was, her knack for engineering was an even more valuable inheritance. Her grandfather, John Fitch, invented the steamboat, and her father was a civil engineer who helped build the city of Chicago before it burned down in 1871.

Dishwashers came into wide use in American homes during the 1950s.

Dishwashers came into wide use in American homes during the 1950s.

There had been earlier patented versions of dishwashers, but Cochran’s was the first to actually clean dishes. Nearly 50 years before she debuted her invention at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Joel Houghton had patented a machine to wash what he called “table furniture.” Dishes placed in a wooden tub were splashed with water on a wheel turned by hand. Inventor L. A. Alexander added gears and a hand-cranked rack system in 1865, but dishes still came out dirty.
Cochran came up with her design in a backyard shed with the help of George Butters, a mechanic. She measured her plates, saucers and cups, and built a wire rack to hold them in place. The rack sat on a flat wheel set in a copper boiler. The wheel turned by a hand crank or later, a pulley system, and hot soapy water was pumped up from the bottom. Hers was the first version to use water pressure instead of scrubbers to clean dishes, and included filters to keep food from clogging up the pipes.

Production of the machine was delayed when her husband died, leaving her with only $1,500 and loads of debt. Four years later she produced the first Garis-Cochran Dish-Washing Machine, and began advertising in magazines. When the dishwasher won the grand prize at the 1893 World’s Fair, hotels and restaurants lined up to buy it. She made her first sale to Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel. Her company eventually became KitchenAid.

Cochran’s dishwasher was too expensive and bulky for the home market she originally designed it for. Until the advent of home electricity and plumbing, dishwasher sales were primarily to institutions with large kitchens.

Competitors made machines powered by steam, and in 1913, Walker Brothers of Philadelphia sold the first electric dishwasher. The refrigerator was also introduced that year and took off in the home market, but it would be another 60 years before the home dishwasher caught on. As indoor plumbing and electricity became increasingly common in the 1920s, a dishwasher was still a luxury only the rich could afford.

In 1924, British inventor William Howard Livens, innovator of chemical weaponry, created a compact dishwasher better suited for home use. Livens’ dishwasher is similar to ones we have today, front-loading with a rotating sprayer.

In the ’40s, a drying element was added, and the ’50s brought the invention of non-sudsing dishwashing soap that rinsed well.

Modern dishwashers such as the Baumatic model (below) use as little as 2 gallons of water per cycle.

Modern dishwashers such as the Baumatic model (below) use as little as 2 gallons of water per cycle.

But it wasn’t until the 1970s that dishwashers were viewed as a necessary appliance. Today about 75 percent of U.S. households have dishwashers.

Recent innovations in dishwasher technology focus on energy efficiency and noise reduction. Some European models now use zeolite crystals to dry dishes in minutes with no additional energy required. But, by and large, the look of dishwashers hasn’t changed much from Livens’ washers of the ‘20s.

There is, however, something new in the world of dishwashers: Two KitchenAid models, new this year, feature a see-through window to give you a glimpse of what’s going on inside your dishwasher.

Will the drudgery of washing dishes be replaced by the drudgery of watching them?