December 28, 1886: Josephine Cochrane Secured a Patent for the Dishwasher and Saved Us All From “Dishpan Hands”

Photo: via Science History Images/Alamy

On December 28, 1886, Josephine Cochrane secured a patent for her invention of the dishwasher. Always fiercely independent, she still had to contend with a male-dominated society in order to get her design patented and sold. Her dishwasher company eventually became KitchenAid, part of the Whirlpool Corporation. Thanks to her visionary eye and tenacity, fewer people have to contend with the monotonous chore of hand-washing dishes and the resulting annoyance of “dishpan hands.”

Josephine Cochrane (née Garis) was born in Shelbyville, IL in 1839. She grew up in a family of successful inventors. Her father, John, was a civil engineer and her great-grandfather was the famous steamboat inventor, John Fitch. However, Cochrane was never formally trained in the sciences. At 19 years old, she married William Cochran, a wealthy businessman and investor. In a bold move, Cochrane took her husband’s last name but added an “e” at the end to assert her independence. This slight name change was much to the chagrin of the Cochran family.

Her husband’s wealth put Cochrane in the “socialite set” and the couple hosted lavish parties with servants to clean up after the guests. However, when the servants chipped heirloom China from the 1600s, Cochrane decided to take over the chore of dishwashing. As she endured the drudgery of dishes, she wondered why someone had yet to invent a machine to do the tiresome work. Then she had a history-changing epiphany: why not invent one myself? Within thirty minutes, she drafted the basic concept of a mechanical dishwasher. It held the dishes securely while applying the necessary water pressure to clean them.

The death of her husband in 1883 left Cochrane with an unexpected mound of debt. That adversity spurred her to create a successful model of her dishwashing machine. She worked it out in a shed behind her house, got a mechanic to construct the product and successfully secured the patent on December 28, 1886. To get the product out in the market, she called it the “Cochrane Dishwasher,” made them for friends and advertised in the local newspapers.

It was hoteliers instead of housewives who were who first customers. She set up her company, Cochran’s Crescent Washing Machine Company, and sold her first dishwasher to the Palmer House hotel in Chicago. Then she made a cold call to the Sherman House hotel in Chicago and waited in the ladies parlor to meet with the manager. At the time, it was still socially unacceptable for a woman to appear in a social setting unaccompanied by a man. She shared in an interview that the hardest part of getting her business started was her meeting at the Sherman House: “You cannot imagine what it was like in those days… for a woman to cross a hotel lobby alone. I had never been anywhere without my husband or father — the lobby seemed a mile wide. I thought I should faint at every step, but I didn’t — and I got an $800 order as my reward.”

After her dishwasher won first place for Best Mechanical Construction at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, she found a steady stream of customers that were mostly restaurants and hotels. Most homes at the time did not have a boiler big enough to handle the dishwasher’s hot water requirements. But eventually, plumbing technology began to support the needs of a dishwasher, and Cochrane began selling them to housewives.

Cochrane was still personally selling her dishwashers until her death in 1913. Three years later, her company was bought out by Hobart, which eventually became KitchenAid. By the 1950s, the dishwasher was a commonplace household appliance. Cochrane’s invention afforded countless women more time to trade domestic chores for other high-minded pursuits. In an era when women were expected to let the men do the inventing, we are thankful that Cochrane made her bold move so that women can lead.

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