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During the period of 1880s to the 1910s, Josephine Garis Cochran was an inventor, entrepreneur, manufacturer, and business owner of dish-washing machines. Several factors—social, legal, political and economic—combined to give women new freedoms and opportunities that reflected greater societal changes of the Guilded Age and the Progressive Era in the United States. Cochran’s life and work to advantage of these changes and applies to many diverse areas of historical study: women’s history, the history of technology, business history, patent development, influence of world’s fairs, such as the World’s Columbian Exposition, history of invention, Chicago history, urban development, widowhood, woman’s suffrage, development of hotels and restaurants, and the history of domesticity and the application of technology to the home to name a few.

During the Progressive Era, women of the middle and upper classes were entering the public sphere in greater numbers. Education was liberating factor for many. For others the cloak of gentility was necessary and so they turned toward reform and benevolent activities that were thinly veiled managerial and political ventures, which provided outlets for well-to-do women to become board members and run businesses. Social work, settlement houses, and the promotion of woman’s suffrage brought women into the public arena, extending the nineteenth century defined limits of domesticity. Women’s movement into the realm of business at the owner/managerial level is an understudied part of the Progressive Era, perhaps because there were so few women who were able to enter that part of the public sphere. This in and of itself makes Cochran’s accomplishments well worth investigation as they relate to the larger context of the Progressive Era.

Through an examination of primary source materials a picture of Cochran’s life was formed. Census records, probate records, copies of her original patents, listings from city directories, contemporary newspaper and journal articles, and some company histories from companies that purchased her firm after her death and reconstructed her manufacturing enterprise were among the resources upon which this thesis was formed. Direct research was also undertaken at the Shelby County Historical and Genealogical Society where there are files on Cochran. Correspondence from Cochran and her relatives was provided by one of Cochran’s descendants. Also a broad literature search of secondary sources was done to provide background and context for Cochran’s life and work.

Many have written about Cochran. Few have gone beyond viewing her as a successful inventor who won medals at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. None discussed in detail her invention of the dishwasher and the evolution of her business nor looked at events in Chicago that made the incorporation of dishwashers in commercial sites possible. Family influences and social activities, such as founding membership in the Unitarian Church of Shelbyville and later the influence of the Christian Scientist church in Chicago, may have helped her to achieve her goals. Widowhood, changing laws for women, and the effects of industry in the home all had an influence upon Cochran’s work. Cochran’s personal life and public accomplishments reflect the changes and challenges of the Progressive Era for women.

After Cochran’s death, four successive companies all used Cochran’s patents as the basis for their dishwashers. Whirlpool Corporation, the latest in the line of companies, still recognizes the contribution Cochran made to its line of KitchenAid machines. If for nothing else, this enduring legacy and recognition makes Cochran a subject meriting study.