Early Electric Dishwasher | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Early Electric Dishwasher

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Early Electric Dishwasher | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeEarly electric dishwasher

Hydro-Electric Manufacturing Company's dishwasher, c. 1930

Interior of Hydro-Electric Manufacturing Company's dishwasher. The rack slides forward to make loading dishes easier. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1997.35.1A-D

EnlargeElectric washer interior

Electric washer interior, c. 1930

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1997.35.1A-D

EnlargeWoman washing dishes

Washing dishes prior to indoor plumbing, c. 1920

Prior to indoor plumbing, many household chores were performed outdoors. Here a woman washes dishes outside in a basin on top of a milk can, Cross Plains, Wisconsin, c. 1920. View the original source document: WHI 25027

EnlargeDishwasher patent

"Table Furniture Cleaning Machine", 1850

J. Houghton's drawing of a "Table Furniture Cleaning Machine," widely recognized as the first mechanical dishwasher. Source: U.S. Patent Office, Patent No 7,365, issued May 14, 1850

EnlargeModern kitchen

"Modern" kitchen, c. 1953

A “modern” kitchen featuring a refrigerator, stove, wall oven, and dishwasher (center left), Madison, Wisconsin, c. 1953. View the original source document: WHI 36675

Early household dishwasher manufactured by Hydro-Electric Manufacturing Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, c. 1930.
(Museum object #1997.35.1A-D)

The modernization of the American kitchen began in the early 20th century, bringing it out of the "shadows" and into the forefront of domestic and family life. The "sanitary movement" in the latter half of the 19th century had focused on making homes and kitchens clean and germ-free. Following this movement, the trend to make kitchens more efficient as well as more attractive was a predominant theme in books, magazines, and marketing efforts aimed at the "modern" housewife for the first half of the century. Attempting to capitalize on the efficiency movement, Hydro-Electric Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee produced this early model electric dishwasher in the 1920s and 1930s.

Donor Jon Will recalled that his parents used this dishwasher on the back porch of their summer cabin on Nashota Lake from the mid-1940s until the cabin was torn down in 1962. Will believed that his grandmother may have brought the dishwasher from her home in Milwaukee to the cabin, perhaps after replacing it with a newer model.

The first patent for a dishwasher was issued to J. Houghton in 1850. His hand-operated model entailed splashing water on a rotating cylinder of dishes using a water-wheel mechanism. In 1886, Josephine Cochrane invented the forerunner of the modern dishwasher, designing a hand-powered machine with several features still standard in contemporary machines: the use of water pressure for cleaning dishes, special racks to hold items in place, and a two-cycle approach of hot, soapy water followed by a clean water rinse. Mrs. Cochrane, a socialite prior to becoming an entrepreneur, was purportedly motivated to invent her machine after taking over dishwashing duties from servants who chipped her good china.

While marketing her relatively expensive invention to households in the late 19th century, Mrs. Cochrane noted that most women were not willing to invest in a dishwasher despite the time it might save them: "When it comes to buying something for the kitchen . . . 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." Cochrane had more success selling dishwashers to hotels and restaurants, where the number of dirty dishes justified the investment in efficient technology.

Several developments in the first few decades of the 20th century, however, improved manufacturers' prospects for getting new technologies into American kitchens. The availability of hot and cold running water and electricity in most homes paved the way for the development of several new appliances. A shortage of domestic help due to increased opportunities in the manufacturing sector after World War I meant that housewives had to do more and more of the housework rather than depending on hired help. Thus, infrastructure and necessity coincided to create new product opportunities for American manufacturers. Small appliances like toasters and irons began appearing in households by 1910, and, by the 1930s, electric stoves, refrigerators, sewing, and washing machines had also entered many homes.

Hydro-Electric Manufacturing Company was incorporated in Milwaukee on April 5, 1924 for the purpose of "manufacturing an electric household dishwasher." Two years later, the company relocated due to increased business "necessitating more adequate facilities for the manufacture of [their] products." That same year, the company's leadership changed, with most new board members coming from the Falk Corporation, a large Milwaukee iron foundry.

Like other dishwasher manufacturers of the time, however, over the long term Hydro-Electric found it more difficult to make their electric dishwasher a standard feature in kitchens of the 1920s and 1930s than other companies had with stoves and refrigerators. The expense, technological limitations, and size deterred most homemakers from purchasing dishwashers during this period and the Hydro-Electric Manufacturing Company ultimately failed to gain widespread acceptance of its product. By 1937, the company's board members voted to dissolve the Hydro-Electric Manufacturing Company for good.

In the following decades, however, dishwashers gradually gained more widespread acceptance in American homes as they came down in both price and size. The idea of compact kitchen layouts, with countertops, cabinets, built-in sinks, and spaces for appliances such as refrigerators, stoves, and dishwashers finally took hold by the 1950s. Manufacturers began offering modular kitchen components, where "a place for everything and everything in its place" was the guiding design principle.

Companies like General Electric and Kenmore produced numerous types of appliances, rather than just one specialized product like Hydro-Electric Manufacturing. It is likely that this diversification helped these companies succeed and allowed them to help transform the kitchen into an attractive, efficiently designed center of domestic activity. More than 100 years after its initial invention by J. Houghton, the dishwasher had finally found a place in the American kitchen.

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[Sources: Alexander, Brian S. Atomic Kitchen (Portland, OR: Collectors' Press, Inc, 2004); Celehar, Jane H. Kitchens and Gadgets 1920-1950 (Des Moines, IA: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1982); Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother (New York: Basic Books, Inc, 1983); Fenster, J. M. "The Woman Who Invented the Dishwasher," Invention & Technology Magazine, Fall 1999; Incorporation Papers, Hydro-Electric Manufacturing Company (WHS Series 356 Box 350 File H1734); United States Patent No. 7,365: Table Furniture Cleaning Machine, J. Houghton, 5/14/1850; United States Patent No. 355,139: Dish-Washing Machine, Josephine G. Cochrane, 12/28/1886.]


Posted on September 18, 2008