Women’s History Month: Josephine Cochran

Hate doing dishes? Rely on your dishwasher to avoid dishpan hands? You can thank Josephine Cochran.

Josephine was born in 1839, and apparently, like most of us, she hated doing dishes. After marrying and moving to Chicago, this hostess with the mostest was despondent at how many of her antique china plates got chipped during the washing up. She tackled the job herself, rather than leaving it to her servants, but it wasn’t long before Cochran realized what we all know to be true: washing dishes sucks. 

There had to be a better way, right? 

There wasn’t, and Cochran, the daughter of a civil engineer, announced that “If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself.” 

And so she did, sketching out the design for her dish washing machine. 

But when Josephine found herself a widow in her mid-forties, her dreams of a time-saving kitchen appliance for women took on more urgency: she needed money. 

No probs, right?

Josephine later complained: “Finding competent help proved difficult. 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.”

Cochran filed for her first patent using her first initials: J.G. Cochran. It’s not hard to figure out why. But eventually, Josephine took herself out to the woodshed and with the help of a mechanic (who later became her first employee), built a prototype. Her machine was innovative in that it relied on water pressure to clean dishes and Josephine–perhaps envisioning her delicate china plates– had also designed ‘cages’ to hold plates and cups in place to avoid chipping.

Cochran knew that the best customers for her machine would be women, and initially, wanted to sell directly to them. But, as she later said, “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.

…SHE HAD NOT LEARNED TO THINK OF HER TIME AND COMFORT AS WORTH MONEY… 

Oh, Josie! We’re still struggling with that over 100 years later. 

Cochran quickly realized that her best bet was restaurants and hotels. She got her first order in 1887. And then another. But it wasn’t easy. 

“Mrs. Cochran is trying to get some one to form a company for the manufacture of her invention, as she is not able to establish this herself,” reported Helen M. Gougar in an 1889 issue of the Women’s Journal. “I wish that women alone might form the stockholders.”

Me too, Helen M. Gouger. Me too. 

But Josephine pressed on, without investors. She exhibited her dish washing machine at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 to huge success, and was awarded the prize for “best mechanical construction, durability and adaptation to its line of work”. Orders started flowing in from restaurants, colleges, hotels, and hospitals. Cochran’s dishwashing marvel could wash and dry 240 dishes in 2 minutes. 

Though she tried, the one thing Josephine couldn’t manage was to lower the cost of her marvelous time-saving machine enough to make it a realistic option for the everyday woman at home.

Josephine died in 1913 at the age of 73, seven years before the 19th Amendment was passed legalizing women’s right to vote. 

The Garis-Cochran Manufacturing Company became part of KitchenAid, and in 1949, the first KitchenAid dishwasher, based on Cochran’s design, was introduced to the public. 

After her death, one publication wrote of Cochrane, “We hear only praises of her machine and among those who are personally acquainted with Mrs. Cochrane [sic] come words of the greatest admiration, respect and honor, and we feel all these are due one who has so persistently and successfully battled with the world, especially when the business pathway is not always made particularly easy for a woman to cope with.”

…especially when the business pathway is not always made particularly easy for a woman to cope with…

I can’t help but think that Josephine was a little bit like her own china plates. She’d married at 19, going from her parents’ house to her husband’s. She grew up in an era when she was expected to be chaperoned outside by men. She couldn’t vote. No one thought she knew what the hell she was talking about. She got banged around and chipped as she made her way in the world. But she figured it out, and in the process, saved not only herself, but millions of dishwashing hands. 

It’s 2021 and while most homes have a dishwasher, a lot of them still have women who don’t think of their time and comfort as worth money. 

Let’s do better.

Happy Women’s History Month!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Linda Beck says:

    Thank God for Josephine Cochran!!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

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