Excerpt from Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, Charles Panati, 1987, page 103-104
With that determined proclamation, Josephine Cochrane, wife of an Illinios politician in the 1860's, set out to invent a major kitchen appliance though not because Mrs. Cochrane was fed up with the humdrum chore of dirty dishes; she was a wealthy woman, with a full staff of servants. A blueblood from Chicago, living in the small prairie town of Shelbyville, Illinois, Josephine Cochrane frequently gave formal dinner parties and she was fed up with dishwashing servants breaking her expensive china. Every party ended with more shattered dishes, which took months to replace by mail. A machine seemed like the ideal solution.
In a woodshed adjoining her home, Josephine Cochrane measured her dinnerware, then fashioned individual wire compartments for plates, saucers, and cups. The compartments fastened around the circumference of a wheel that rested in a large copper boiler. As a motor turned the wheel, hot soapy water squirted up from the bottom of the boiler and rained down on the dinnerware. The design was crude but effective, and it so impresses her circle of friends that they dubbed the invention the "Cochrane Dishwasher" and placed orders for machines for their kitchens. They, too, viewed the device as a solution to the vexing problem of irresponsible help.
Word spread. Soon Josephine Cochrane was receiving orders from Illinois hotels and restaurants, where volume dishwashing and breakage was a continual and costly problem. Realizing that she had hit upon a timely invention, Mrs. Cochrane patented her design in December 1886; her washer went on to win the highest award at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair for, as the citation read, "the best mechanical construction, durability, and adaptation to its line of work."
Hotels and restaurants remained the best customers for Josephine Cochrane's large-capacity dishwashers. But in 1914, the company she had founded came out with a smaller machine, for the average American home. To management's astonishment, the average American housewife was unimpressed with the labor-saving device.
Part of this reluctance was technological. In 1914, many homes lacked the quantity of scalding water a dishwasher required. The entire contents of a family's hot-water tank might be insufficient to do just the dinner dishes. Furthermore, in many parts of the country the water was "hard," containing dissolved minerals that prevented soap from sudsing enough to spray-clean the dishes. Elbow power was required to get dinnerware sparkling.
But there was another problem that no one in Mrs. Cochrane's company had anticipated. Josephine Cochrane, who had never washed a dish, assumed that American housewives viewed dishwashing as a disagreeable chore. However, when her executives polled housewives, hoping to learn why the home models weren't selling, they discovered that while numerous household duties were dreaded (principally laundering the family clothes), dishwashing was not one of them. Quite the contrary. T he majority of the women questioned in 1915 reported that doing dinner dishes was a welcome relaxer at the end of a hard day.
Mrs. Cochrane's company (which later would merge with an Ohio manufacturing firm to produce the popular Kitchenaid dishwasher) adopted another advertising angle: A major reason for purchasing a dishwasher was the proven fact that a machine could use water far hotter than the human hand could bear. Thus, dishwashers not only got plates and glasses cleaner; they also killed more germs. Sales still did not appreciably improve. The home market for dishwashers would not become profitable until the early 1950s, when postwar prosperity made leisure time, glamour, and an emerging sense of self, independent from husband and children, major concerns of the American housewife.
©Roger M. Palay
Saline, MI 48176