The History of the Status Appliance

When analyzing how food has contributed history, it is easy to choose the parts most essential to a dish and highlight them as integral to the shaping of history. Questions like what kind of ingredients were used, what class of people were enjoying the dish, and what did the popularization of that dish mean are all go to’s when understanding how food culture has changed the landscape of history. However, an overlooked aspect of the dishes so often discussed through history, are the vessels they are consumed from. Plates, bowls, cups, and glasses are just as much a part of the dining experience as the food itself, and the manner of which they are sanitized and cleaned has changed dramatically through history. With the invention of the automatic dishwasher, dishwashing, once a labor job seen as the most menial and low skill in the kitchen, becomes an automated symbol of status for the modern home. 

The 19th century brough in a new age of technological advancement. The origin of many modern necessities can be traced to the subtle inconveniences of the wealthy and influential. Dishwashing was and still is today, a menial job that can be completed with little to no skill. In restaurants, the entry level position most often is dishwashing. In 1850, Joel Houghton received the first patent for his rudimentary dishwasher. His invention was nothing more than a wood container that sprayed water on the dishes within. It was not until 1886 that the modern dishwasher concept was conceived. Wealthy housewife, Josephine Cochrane, “set out to invent a major kitchen appliance-though not because Mrs. Cochrane was fed up with the humdrum chore of dirty dishes…” (Panati 130). A frequent host of elegant house parties, socialite Cochrane loathed the frequent chipping of her expensive china plates from the careless cleaning of her dining staff’s mishandling. Spurred by the inconvenience, she sought to create a machine that would do the task for her. Cochrane spent, “hours in her shed working on her design idea, and what eventually resulted closely resembles what modern Americans have as standard equipment in their home kitchens today. After trial and error, the best-performing machine held the dishes in racks within a copper tub while water pressure acted as the scrubbing mechanism and scalding water sanitized the clean dishes while hastening the drying time” (Gale 1). Cochrane would go on to patent her design in 1886. Hotel and restaurant management quicky found use for this new invention and “to meet this new demand Cochrane founded the Cochrane Crescent Washing Machine Company. At the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 she demonstrated her machine to the public, and won awards for mechanical design and durability” (Craughwell 1). Cochrane Crescent Washing Machine Company would go on to be acquired by Kitchen Aid, a member of Whirlpool Corporation which today produces a number of appliances for customers internationally.

“Cochrane U.S. Patent Illustration 1886.” United States Patent and Trademark Office
“Cochrane U.S. Patent Illustration 1917.” United States Patent and Trademark Office

By 1921, advertisements depicting the automatic dishwasher began appearing in print magazines and catalogues. Touted as a deluxe appliance for “fine homes”, the dishwasher attempted to break into the domestic market. The machine served as a way to protect and preserve delicate china in a manner traditional handwashing could not. But, most of the country’s homes did not possess the infrastructure needed for an automatic dishwasher. A majority of homes in the early 1900s, “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…in many parts of the country, the water was “hard,” containing dissolved minerals that prevented soap from sudsing” (Panati 103). In addition to infrastructure challenges, early dishwashers were expensive, costing several thousand dollars in today’s money. 

Electric Dishwasher Manufactured by Josephine Cochran’s Crescent 
Washing Machine Company in the Early 1900s. Image Courtesy of Hobart Corporation.” 

The rigid gender roles of the 1900’s exclusively dictated that women were solely responsible for the domestic duties. Clara Zillessen writes in her 1921 article, “The Electric Dishwasher”, “Men as a rule do not realize the grubbiness of dishwashing. Any man who holds a so-called “white-collar” job – an accountant, salesman, professional man – would growl at washing dishes three times a day…Yet his wife is certainly no less fastidious than he. But whatever her inward rebellion, she puts her hands in the hot dishwater three times a day every day in the year, because that is part of her job as a housewife” (Zillessen 137). The advertisement of the electric dishwasher as a time saver would transform the machine from a method of protecting fine table wear to necessary addition to the home kitchen. Zillessen’s article attempts to predict any resistance a household may have to installing a dishwasher, citing the size of the family being too small to take full advantage, the efficacy of the dishwasher, and even the resistant housewife who, “knows her own housekeeping business best and that the dishwasher has no place in her scheme o’ things” (Zillessen 142). To this point, Zillessen preys on the impressionable housewife’s materialistic desires and American the infatuation with vanity, writing, “she can keep her hands perfectly and daintily manicured by eliminating the greasy dishwater and objectionable dishcloth; pride… her husband is such a “good provider” and so solicitous of his wife’s comfort and happiness… and appealing to here sense of pride in her house keeping (Zillessen 142).

The dishwasher would not experience its next boost in popularity until after the 1950s. Post World War II America experience a new age of advertising. The war had significantly affected the United States’ manufacturing capabilities, increasing overall production within the country. An article from by Metropolitan Museum of Art writer Jared Gross explains, “The pressing need for inexpensive housing and furnishings spurred a boom in design and production. A new optimism—filled with the promise of the future—prevailed…The elaborate households of the prewar years were gone, replaced by informality and adaptability. Gone, too, was the conventional approach to furnishings as expensive and permanent status objects. New materials and technologies…helped to free design from tradition, allowing for increasingly abstract and sculptural aesthetics as well as lower prices for mass-produced objects.” (Gross 1). The print advertising reflected this as well. Magazine housewives beamed as their Admiral, General Electric, or Whirlpool branded dishwashers cleansed their glasses, plates and flatware. An image from a 1958 issue of Life Magazine markets the opportunity for a bowling night with all the time saved from the possession of the Admiral branded dishwasher. 

Admiral Dishwasher Advertisement in Life Magazine 1958.

Manufacturers vied for opportunities to market their machine as superior to the competition in print advertising throughout the 1960s.  Time preservation remained a major selling point for dishwashers but manufactures sought to add additional features to improve the efficacy of automated cleaning. A General Electric advertisement from a 1963 issue of Life Magazine displays two models of dishwasher, one a top loading portable washer that attaches to the faucet, the other a traditional washer built into the pluming of the home. An excerpt plays on the differences between households of antiquity and 1960’s modernity. The ad reads, “Maybe Grandma made her own soap…but help was cheap and available then. Now, you must do 6 things at once and still look pretty to ‘compete.’ A General Electric dishwasher won’t be a luxury for you”, insinuating that the dishwasher had now become a necessity in the household (“General Electric” [Page 88]). The ad still panders to the housewife desperate to save time on her chores, but now also flaunts, “its unique 3 level washing action” which more effectively breaks down food on dishware. With a purchase price of $149 in 1962, $1,300 in today’s money, the machine’s function alone no longer draws enough attention to warrant purchase. Manufactures needed to develop additional features to not only remove debris from plates but do so more effectively than the competition. 

“General Electric Can’t Make a Mother Machine, but Have You Seen Our Wonderful New Dishwasher?” Life Magazine

Today, the dishwasher is more prevalent in the household than ever before and promotes features inconceivable at the time of its creation, although the overall design has remained the same. But usage within the household varies. A report from the U.S Energy Information Administration stated that, “Of the 80 million households that have a dishwasher, 16 million (almost 20%) did not use their dishwasher in 2015” (U.S. Energy 1). Out of all standard home appliances: clothes washer, clothes dryer, microwave, dishwasher, and refrigerator, the dishwasher had the lowest presence and usage, with around 54% of U.S. households. The report also stated that lower income households with older model dishwashers were the most likely to hand wash, the belief being that handwashing will conserve more water. Alternative hypotheses include the preference of ordering takeout or fast food instead of cooking a meal from scratch. Couples without children also may not see the benefit in using a dishwasher. The New York Times best pick for 2022 Bosch 300 Series washer is equipped with five wash cycles, one of which claims to reduce 99.9% of bacteria, adjustable rack up to nine positions, quiet 44 decibel wash cycle sound level, Energy Star qualification, and the oh-so-coveted stainless-steel design necessary to blend into the modern kitchen. Similarly, to the dishwashers of antiquity, the Bosch 300 Series will not be cheap, boasting a sale price of right under $1000 despite being even the most expensive washer offered today. The cheapest option will provide the basics. For example, a basic Frigidaire washer offers two wash cycles and a fixed rack, but like the more expensive Bosch branded washer, includes a stainless-steel finish and louder 62 decibel wash cycle sound level.

Regardless of which model homeowners pick, since its creation, the basis of dishwasher ownership has been founded on convivence and the preservation of time. Nothing about the device is necessary as illustrated by lack of usage even today in the United States. The value of the dishwasher is in how it allows individuals to distance themselves from undesirable tasks. Washing a dish is the culinary equivalent of traditional blue-collar work. While respectable in its own sense, blue collar work is viewed as laborious and time consuming. Dishwashing is very similar. The excitement that accompanies the preparation of a meal overshadows the clean-up work required for the next. For some families, the dishwasher assumes the menial role of tidying the pots and pans used as vessels for their sustenance, and thanklessly but dutifully fulfills its role in the household.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.