Hands That Do Dishes – Can Do So Much More!

Jun 21, 2022 | Women Inventors

Among the many inventions I’m grateful to have enjoyed during my lifetime, high on the list would be the dishwasher.  Penicillin is my #1 invention, because without it I would have been dead at 15 months old!

I bought my first dishwasher when I was thirty-two, and really fed up with washing dishes.  No one I knew had a dishwasher when I was growing up in Britain. Even the rich people I worked for (as a nanny, cleaner, general dogsbody) didn’t have a dishwasher. Dishwashers were “one of those American things.”  In fact, from the time I could stand on a chair next to the sink and get my hands in the soapy water, I was the family dishwasher!  I bet a good number of you had exactly the same experience.

(No, that isn’t me …)

At fifteen my Saturday evening job (in addition to the daytime shop assistant job) was at a local restaurant where I was … yep, the dishwasher.  The fact that I have hands like sandpaper is due to the two years I spent scrubbing crockery, pans, cutlery and anything else that needed to be washed.  No one thought to give me a pair of rubber gloves, and I didn’t think to spend my hard-earned cash on a pair. I had other plans for that money.

So, now that you have the picture and I’ve stirred some of your own memories, let’s hear applause for Josephine Cochran, 1839-1913, inventor of the modern dishwasher.  If she had been British, she would have been given a damehood by now and – hopefully – a statue somewhere.  But what am I thinking?  She wasn’t a man or a monarch, so no statue for her!

A mechanical dishwasher had already been developed by Joel Houghton in 1850, but it was a wooden machine with brushes and a handle.  Another invention by a man, L.A. Alexander, was a bit of an improvement, but neither did the job very well. Crockery and fine china were still damaged as much as they had been by hand washing.  It was the breakage of her beloved china by “the help” that really irked our heroine.  That would have been me fired on the spot if I had been born 100 years earlier.

Following an important dinner party when Josephine’s heirloom china was chipped while being washed, she reached the end of her tether and thought she could do a better job.  “If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself!” she said.  Oh, aren’t those the words of so many women when they see a job that needs to be done, and either no one else is stepping in to do it, or the person doing the job is going at it half-heartedly, so it needs to be done again.  How many times have you said, “I’ll do it myself”?

Scurrying away to a shed in her garden, Josephine experimented with a groundbreaking design, the first to use pressurized water instead of brushes to clean the dishes and with different racks to hold an array of sizes while hot water did the job.  She was helped in the construction of the interior by a mechanic, George Butters – Butters later managed the factory she opened in 1898.  However, before reaching that point, the greatest hurdle came when Josephine had to “sell” the idea.  I think we know how difficult it is for women inventors and scientists to be heard, especially “back in the day.”  If anyone would like a refresher course in the walls that women scientists (and to be fair, women in the realm of almost any other endeavor) have had to break down to receive recognition, treat yourself to a copy of Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.  One of my favorite novels of the year – or the last few years, for that matter.

Sadly, soon after she began working on the design, Josephine’s husband died – he was an alcoholic who left her with many debts, a situation that pressed her to carry on with her work.  This was not an easy task, and Josephine wanted to get it just right. In 1886 she patented her design and began making the machines for friends – she called her invention “The Cochran Dishwasher.”  She founded “The Garis-Cochran Manufacturing Company” and was soon taking orders from commercial enterprises – restaurants and hotels.  Clearly the restaurant I worked in was a good 80 years behind the times!  Wish I had known then what I know now.

In 1893 Josephine took her invention to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where she won an award for design and durability.  However, before we assume this was an easy journey to success – go back to Lessons In Chemistry.  Given that it was a time when women did not venture out alone without either a husband or chaperone, Josephine  was turned down for many meetings with the men who held the purse-strings – because she was a woman.  Perhaps that’s why she used her father’s name to launch the company. John Garis was a civil engineer.  The company was later renamed The Cochran Crescent Washing Machine Company.  However, while the machines became a success in the commercial environment, not so much with consumers.  Many women claimed to love washing dishes (and I would love to have had a chat to ask that all-important question – “Why?”). Other problems came to light – one key drawback was the fact that many homes did not enjoy the hot water on tap that we have access to today.  Another was the cost – $75-$100, which wasn’t chump change in those days. It isn’t now, either. One more fly in the ointment was the US financial panic of 1893, which impacted almost every aspect of the economy.  But Josephine Cochran endured, and by the time the late 1940’s came along, the company was in pole position to take advantage of an interesting phenomenon – the 1950’s American woman.

By the time the 1950’s rolled around, women in America wanted convenience in everything, so the dishwasher took off. The Cochran Crescent Washing Machine Company became part of KitchenAid in 1949, and the first KitchenAid dishwasher was launched. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Josephine died in 1913 at the age of 74, so she missed the greatest success of her invention (although I think my first dishwasher was her greatest success).  Sadly, it took until 2006 for her to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.  So, when you load the dishwasher, think of Josephine and thank your lucky stars she hated chipped china.

The WomenSong Blog is my indulgence—a chance to write about women’s lives from the past to the present. I plan to write not only about women whose names are well known, but women with unheralded accomplishments. Many visitors to this blog will know that I have been interested in women’s history since childhood—since I created my first book at the age of eight. It was a task set in class, for each pupil to produce a “topic book” on something we were interested in. We had to not only research and write the content (though the word “research” was not used—instead it was called “Finding out”), and we created the cover in our art and craft lessons, finally stitching the pages and boards together. Finally we had to present our topic to the class. I loved making that book—and it opened a window for me. Though the women in my “Famous Women” topic book were all well known, as time went on, I became equally interested in women whose accomplishments had been forgotten or never acknowledged. So, as noted, this is my indulgence, a chance to write about the lives of women. I hope you enjoy the posts.

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Read more about Jacqueline Winspear here

Note: This blog is not allied to any other organization using the word “WomenSong.”