The Woman Who Invented The Dishwasher
She did it because the servants broke the china
JOSEPHINE GARIS COCHRANE seemed to have reached the low point of her life one Sunday in about 1880, when she went to church in the midst of an illness and heard the pastor deliver her eulogy. Jasper Douthit, the minister, was undoubtedly rushing things a bit, but then, he had been a reformer on so many fronts for so long that impatience was probably his idea of a positive contribution to any effort. Whatever the intent of his wistful farewell, entitled “Hoping, Waiting and Resting,” Mrs. Cochrane eventually rallied. The eulogy was later published, and so it is possible that she took it out from time to time to savor during the remaining three decades of her life.
A few years following the illness, Mrs. Cochrane, a socialite in Shelbyville, Illinois, was putting away her best china after a dinner party when she noticed that some pieces had been chipped by the servants washing up. That too was very nearly a low point in her life, the china having been handed down for generations in the family; the legend was that it dated from the 1600s.
Mrs. Cochrane rallied again, however, and ordered that from that point forward the servants were to stand aside. She would wash the china herself. And that, as it turned out, constituted the actual low point of Josephine Garis Cochrane’s life.
No one ever hated washing dishes more. The morning after every party, Mrs. Cochrane stood at the kitchen sink, scrubbing the remains of a meal, watching her hands shrivel up in the suds, and after that there was the drying to do. She had more than enough time to conclude that it was an utter waste of time to wash dishes, even though there was no choice in the matter.
She was just spoiled enough in her upbringing to resent the supposition that there was no choice in a matter—any matter. Nonetheless, in the case of dishes there really was no choice. “Why doesn’t somebody invent a machine to wash dirty dishes?” she later recalled musing to herself. “Why don’t I invent such a machine myself?” With that she quit the kitchen to go into the library of her home and think. She settled into a large chair and imagined the alternatives, still holding a cup in her hand.
A half-hour later she had the idea for the first workable dishwashing machine. It recognized water pressure as the best scrubbing force and worked by spraying , soapy water onto dishes held securely within a rack, not unlike the average dishwashing machine in use today.
Friends encouraged Josephine to develop her idea, and her husband probably supported it too, though he was ill at the time and about to leave for a respite at a mineral springs. The couple were well liked in Shelby County, but theirs must have been a frustrating marriage in some respects. One bleak measure of divergence is that they spelled their name differently. William used “Cochran,” as did the rest of his family; Josephine added an e, whenever she could, and used “Cochrane.” William Cochran had made a small fortune for himself in the dry goods business, but he was best known as a leader in the Democratic party. In some circles he was even accorded the unofficial title of Judge. With connections throughout Illinois, he could be counted on to help form a business group if his wife could prove that her idea was practical. To that end she stayed home to work on designs, while he left for the rest cure. Within days, though, he was back, having suffered a downturn in his condition.
Two weeks later William Cochran was dead. The special memorial extra of a local newspaper, Our Best Words , filled ten pages with praise and regret. The probate filing for Cochran’s estate proved to be a shorter document. It consisted of four small pages. The first page was sparsely filled with Cochran’s few assets; the second was lined with the names of his primary creditors; the fourth showed those sums against each other, with the residue due to the widow totaling $1,535.59. Even in 1883 one couldn’t sustain the lifestyle of a socialite on the income from $1,535.59. One couldn’t even be a poor widow on that pitiful amount. But then, it wasn’t likely to matter anyway, because the estate still owed $2,769.77 to the long line of claimants listed on the third page of the probate. Each of them got fifty-five cents on the dollar, and Josephine Cochrane got to start all over again. If it was time for Mrs. Cochrane to move in with relatives, she didn’t seem to know it. If it was time for her to take a job in a hat shop or elsewhere, she didn’t think of that either. She was already too busy, at work in the shed behind her house, hammering pieces of hardware to a copper wash-boiler, building the first dishwasher. The odds of her actually launching a commercial venture out of it were dismal. But apparently they didn’t seem so to a person who one morning, in her mind, had seen a new machine at work.
“Women are inventive, the common opinion to the contrary notwithstanding,” Josephine Cochrane once said. “You see, we are not given a mechanical education, and that is a great handicap. It was to me—not in the way you suppose, however. I couldn’t get men to do the things I wanted in my way until they had tried and failed in their own. And that was costly for me. They knew I knew nothing, academically, about mechanics, and they insisted on having their own way with my invention until they convinced themselves my way was the better, no matter how I had arrived at it.”
Josephine Cochrane’s mechanical aptitude may have been intuitive, but it wasn’t accidental. Her father, John Garis, was a civil engineer who had consulted on the development of Chicago in the 1850s, when it was growing fast across rivers and wetlands. John Garis exerted a strong influence in creating in his daughter the mind of an engineer. Her mother, Irene Fitch Garis, left an impression just as strong, one created from the history of her side of the family.
Irene Garis’s grandfather was John Fitch. Only vaguely remembered today, John Fitch was operating steamboat service on the Delaware River when Robert Fulton was still painting landscape pictures. Trained as a clockmaker, Fitch launched a steamboat of his own design in 1786- more than twenty years in advance of Fulton’s famous Clermont —and he was soon offering regular service between Philadelphia and points east with a little fleet of three working vessels. However, Fitch’s financiers were hardly the stuff of baronial Robert R. Livingston, who would be the chief backer of Fulton’s 1807 steamship. Fitch’s financing failed. The invention did not, but that fact only exacerbated his disappointment, which affected him so morbidly that he committed suicide in 1798. To his grandchildren John Fitch was a hero, a great inventor.
Josephine Garis never knew Fitch personally. She was born on March 8, 1839, in Ashtabula County, Ohio. While she was growing up, her father was engaged in the supervision of a number of mills along the Ohio River, in Ohio and Indiana. His experience, and so Josephine’s exposure, was not limited to any one type of operation; he worked at woolen mills, sawmills, and gristmills. Later the family moved to Valparaiso, Indiana, where Garis conducted projects on a wider scale in his post as state swamp engineer. Indoctrination to swamp work may or may not have been useful to the inventor of the dishwasher, but both father and, later, daughter worked in hydraulic engineering, which made for a sturdy enough connection between them.
By the time John Garis was engineering swamps for the state of Indiana, he had been widowed; when Josephine’s private high school burned down, she was sent to live with a sister in Illinois. While there, she met William Cochran, and in 1858, at the age of nineteen, she married him. Cochran was an attractive man of twenty-seven, with dark hair and soft features. He had grown up in Shelby County but possessed too much ambition for the place as a young man and went west with a wagon train in 1853 after the California gold strikes. The only souvenir he brought home from four dispiriting years there, though, was a pronounced limp, the result of an injury sustained in a mining camp. Back in Illinois he entered the dry goods business with his uncle, taking on other investments as opportunities arose. By the time he married Josephine Garis, he was a man of means, with a friendly disposition and a gentle aura about him.
She was pretty and vivacious, a high-strung young woman who was apt to be more direct in manner than her new husband. They had a wide circle of friends, which grew apace with his burgeoning involvement with the Democratic party. The Democrats were in the ascendancy in Shelbyville; when Abraham Lincoln made an appearance in town a few years earlier to ignite interest in the fledgling Republican party, he had been greeted by fewer than a half-dozen people.
When the Civil War started, downstate Democrats in Illinois were strongly sympathetic to the South, and they resisted the draft, sometimes with violence. William Cochran, kept out of the service by his lame foot, emerged as a popular yet cool-headed figure, and he rose markedly within the party during the tumultuous days of the war. In 1864 he was elected county circuit clerk, presenting enough authority in matters of financial dispute to make some county residents regard him as Judge Cochran. He was re-elected three times, and in 1870 the Cochrans moved into a showplace in Shelbyville, a large white house on a conspicuous corner in the town’s residential neighborhood.
“This man might have been Governor of Illinois or held some other high position,” Jasper Douthit wrote of him, “if he had not fallen a victim in the prime of life to the social glass.” According to Douthit, a reformer in the Chautauquan tradition, Cochran’s gentle demeanor was compromised by liquor, resulting in “acts and dispositions as were unworthy of this man.” Among other things, he displayed flashes of violent temper. At the same time, his finances crumbled.
However the Cochrans’ life disintegrated, it seemed to do so from within. When William Cochran died in 1883, many hundreds of people attended the funeral, clogging the streets of Shelbyville. (Perhaps they thought it was a meeting of claimants.)
To test the concept behind her dishwashing machine, Josephine Cochrane stood at the sink pouring—or, as she put it, “throwing”—soapy water over plates and saucers. When she was satisfied that the basic method was sound, if a little soddening to the open spaces of her kitchen, she proceeded with her plan to transfer the fundamentals to the confines of a copper wash-boiler. She went out to the shed—a site now marked with a historical marker in Shelbyville—and began to fashion a working model: a pile of metal that would wash dishes. To help with the construction, she enlisted a mechanic named George Butters, of the Illinois Central Railroad. He would remain with her undertaking ever after.
The first model was powered by hand-pumping, as streams of soapy water cleaned dishes set securely into wire racks. Within two months of starting to put it together, Josephine Cochrane was the first person on her block to own a dishwasher. Friends and neighbors came to see the thing work, and everyone was impressed. “It is thorough in its work and simple in the arrangement required to operate it,” said one neighbor. Another called it a blessing to humanity. The most important bit of encouragement, though, came from a local businessman, who thought it perfect for home or institutional use. “The first class hotels will be benefited,” he wrote, “the common hotels will delight their guests with clean dishes and the scullery maid henceforth, if not a thing of beauty, may become a joy forever.
“I hope everyone will get one,” he added, referring to the dishwasher and not to one of the scullery maids who were to be transfigured. Mrs. Cochrane applied for the first of her many patents on the invention and received it on December 28, 1886. Patents had been issued before for dishwashing machines, but most of them covered designs that relied on mechanical means for scrubbing, rather than on water pressure. She named her creation the Garis-Cochran Dish-Washing Machine.
With a U.S. patent and a sheaf of testimonials, Mrs. Cochrane turned to the invention of something as complex as any dishwasher: a company to market a new invention. The very qualities of stubbornness or myopia that make some people brilliant inventors often also keep them from business success. One of the first assumptions Mrs. Cochrane had made about her machine—that it was fit for the home—could easily have proved her ruination had she been stubborn about it. She ascertained early on that marketing her invention that way would pit her in an uphill battle against the domestic politics of the late nineteenth century.
In a long interview with the Chicago Record-Herald on November 24, 1912, she explained what she had learned about selling dishwashers to householders: “When it comes to buying something for the kitchen that costs $75 or $100, a woman begins at once to figure out all the other things she could do with the money. She hates dishwashing—what woman does not?—but she has not learned to think of her time and comfort as worth money. Besides, she isn’t the deciding factor when it comes to spending comparatively large sums of money for the house. Her husband sees that adversely, generally, in the case of costly kitchen conveniences—though he will put comptometers and all that into his office every day of the week without even mentioning the fact to her.”
Because she wasn’t adamant about what part of humanity she would bless with the dishwasher, Josephine Cochrane traveled to Chicago in about 1887 to make another start in salesmanship, targeting institutions and hotels. Reverting to her social training, she wrote to everyone she knew in town, making mention of her dishwasher. A rich friend advised her to try the manager of the Palmer House and then introduced her to him, with the result that she received an order, and a momentous one at that. The manager may have been easily sold in deference to Mrs. Cochrane’s rich friend, a resident of the hotel, but nonetheless the Palmer House was the most famous hotel in the country, and some of its reputation immediately began to spill over to the Garis-Cochran. The same friend next told her to try the Sherman House, another big hotel in the city. That would have to be a “cold” sale, though, with no cozy introduction. She went to the hotel by herself and sat down in the ladies’ parlor, just off the lobby, submitting a request for a moment of the manager’s time. It was granted.
“You asked me what was the hardest part of getting into business,” Mrs. Cochrane recalled for the reporter for the Record-Herald . “That was almost the hardest thing I ever did, I think, crossing the great lobby of the Sherman House alone. You cannot imagine what it was like in those days, twenty-five years ago, 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.”
By 1888 the company was offering two basic models, each of which could be designed in a variety of sizes. In the smaller, hand-operated one, the dish rack was placed in a box-shaped canister and hot soapy water was sprayed over it by means of hand-pumping. Afterward, hot rinsing water had to be hand-poured over the dishes. The second version was larger and more involved mechanically. It had dish racks on either side that moved back and forth under a stream of soapy water. The beauty of the mechanical assembly designed by Mrs. Cochrane was that it allowed someone other than a stevedore to operate it, as it moved crates of heavy dishes even while pumping water straight up from the bottom. The initial idea was that even the slightest maid or housewife would be able to operate the machine. It was designed to be fitted with a motor, which was sold separately. At peak capacity a Garis-Cochran could wash and dry 240 dishes in two minutes.
Without capital, the Garis-Cochran Company contracted for manufacture of its machines with a firm in Decatur called E B. Tait and Co. Working through a contractor proved to be a source of ongoing consternation. It isn’t uncommon for the process of transferring a new item into production to be just as demanding as inventing it in the first place. For Mrs. Cochrane it was particularly galling to have ideas and refinements disdained simply because she had no formal mechanical training. Moreover, it was vexing to notice that while she brought in the brains, the guts, and also the standing orders, F. B. Tait seemed to make all the profits.
George Chafee, one of the early champions of the dishwashing machine, offered to underwrite a capitalization plan for a Garis-Cochran factory. Along with his prospectus, he printed pictures of the machines and of Mrs. Cochrane herself ( “The Inventor and Patentee of the Only Dish-Washing Machine that ‘Fills the Bill’ Successfully”). Unfortunately he could not raise the capital he sought. Mrs. Cochrane later claimed that she could never interest capital investment in the company except when she was expected to resign.
While Chafee looked for investors of any gender, size, or shape, a woman named Helen Gougar wrote a letter to the Woman’s Journal , published in Boston, calling on women to capitalize Garis-Cochran. Gougar had been impressed by one of the company’s machines at a hotel in Decatur, Illinois, where she saw it wash the china service for 100 guests in a scant 20 minutes. “There is money in it if properly managed,” she said.
Mrs. Cochrane never did meet the need for outside capital, and that must have seemed a tough break, one dealt largely because she was female. Perhaps it was just as well, even a lucky break, considering the timing. Young companies like Garis-Cochran that were heavily financed were the first ones to be wiped out in the Panic of 1893. For Garis-Cochran, without money but without obligations either, 1893 turned out to be a banner year.
The company’s big chance came with the announcement of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Probably the greatest fair of the century, it was to be held in Chicago. Everyone in town knew that much, because they could see it rising like an ancient Greek city along the lakefront. Something else that everybody knew, if they thought about it, was that what people really do at a fair is eat, and eat a lot. What Mrs. Cochrane knew, because she did think about it (and little else for most of the last part of her life), was that when people eat, they leave dirty dishes behind. So, from a certain point of view, the whole World’s Columbian Exposition was created to showcase the GarisCochran Dish-Washing Machine.
And it did just that. Backstage at restaurants from the Big Kitchen to the New England Clam Bake, a total of nine Garis-Cochran machines were used at the fair. “August 24 , ‘Illinois Day,’”” wrote a fairgrounds restaurant manager to Mrs. Cochrane, “your machine at ‘Big Kitchen’ washed without delay the soiled dishes left by eight relays of 1000 soldiers each, completing each lot within thirty minutes. … the deduction must be that this machine is perfect.”
The judges evaluating inventions on display at Machinery Hall concurred, awarding the machine the highest prize for “best mechanical construction, durability and adaptation to its line of work.” The Garis-Cochran DishWashing Machine was one of the few inventions entered by women at the exposition. “They used often to bring people to my exhibit in Machinery Hall,” Mrs. Cochrane recalled, “simply because the invention was so mechanical—wonderful for a woman, they thought. They would have thought it still more wonderful had they known the opposition I encountered from trained mechanics in getting my own way.”
The increased publicity from the World’s Columbian Exposition helped sales but also invited imitations, which Mrs. Cochrane fought doggedly. Even after other dishwashing machines entered the market legitimately, Garis-Cochrans stood at the vanguard of engineering for the appliance. The company didn’t make all the money it might have, but it remained a going enterprise. Its machines worked day in and day out in institutions throughout Illinois and neighboring states. Josephine Cochrane, who had been afraid to so much as walk across a hotel lobby in 1887, was traveling widely to oversee installation of her machines in the 1890s.
In 1898 Mrs. Cochrane became a bona fide manufacturer, opening her own factory near Chicago with money she had saved herself. The premises were an abandoned schoolhouse located near the foundry where castings for the machines were still to be made. George Butters was named foreman and chief machinist, overseeing a work force of about three. The factory was a small setup, but it made it possible for Josephine Cochrane, at long last, to manufacture machines entirely to her own specifications. Working with people who respected her, she could quickly implement changes in design as they occurred to her, without having to shepherd every idea through a tangle of other people’s reactions and opinions.
In the early years of the twentieth century, GarisCochran machines were in use in hotels and large restaurants all over the country, as well as in Alaska and Mexico. However, Mrs. Cochrane still worked on ways to reduce the cost of the dishwasher to suit it to the widest potential market of all, the home kitchen. The domestic model she promoted cost about $350 and was powered by a very small motor. Sales were a disappointment though, so the company continued to emphasize the institutional models, which drew, according to an editorial in Hotel World magazine, universal admiration.
Garis-Cochran machines were expensive, but hotels claimed that they paid for themselves within months, reducing the number of employees on dish detail by as much as 75 percent and minimizing broken china as well. Using scalding water to rinse (which also accelerated drying), the machines sanitized dishes to a degree not possible through hand-washing. Nonprofit institutions, including hospitals and colleges, installed Garis-Cochrans largely to reduce the potential for germs to spread. Mrs. Cochrane tried to promote the same reasoning in advertising to homemakers, pointing out that dishrags and towels can be the most germ-ridden items in a house. Her machines obviated both. However, she found that she had more success when she divulged that the hidden benefit of her dishwasher was just that: a hidden benefit, for weary homemakers could always opt to store dirty dishes in the machine and so get them out of sight and mind. Homemakers liked that.
In 1912, at the age of seventy-three, Josephine Cochrane undertook her most ambitious business trip, traveling to New York in a successful effort to sell machines to several new hotels, including the Biltmore, and to department stores, such as Lord & Taylor, which bought four Garis-Cochrans for its restaurants. The company was finally starting to thrive in the years just before her death in 1913. She died in August of that year after falling, according to an obituary, into a state of paralysis brought on by “nervous exhaustion.” That fate might not be any cause for pity though. “If I knew all I know today when I began to put the dishwasher on the market, I never would have had the courage to start,” she said in looking back. “But then, I would have missed a very wonderful experience.”
After her death the company changed names, but it continued to manufacture machines according to her designs. In 1926 it was absorbed into Hobart, a company with an estimable reputation of its own for well-engineered appliances. Changing the name of its subsidiary to KitchenAid, Hobart finally introduced a successful home dishwasher in the late 1940s. Today KitchenAid is part of Whirlpool Corporation, and Cochrane is proudly regarded by the company as its founder.
“I wouldn’t advise any woman who wants to get rich by her own efforts to invent a dishwasher,” Josephine Garis Cochrane once said, with a wry smile. She didn’t get rich, but she did provide a comfortable living for herself and her employees, and she controlled her own company until her death. In that, she bettered her ancestor John Fitch by a long way. “It is a good world and getting better every day,” Mrs. Cochrane observed near the end of her life, describing succinctly the place she had lived in for so long as an inventor.