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Kitchen Appliances: A Brief History

Most of us enjoy modern kitchen appliances, but that wasn't the case a century or so ago. The first reports of a mechanical dishwasher date back to 1850, with the patent of a hand-powered dishwasher. We can thank Josephine Cochran, a wealthy Illinois society matron and inventor, for the early models of our modern dishwashers. Ms. Cochran hosted many dinner parties; she invented the machine so her staff could wash the dishes more quickly without chipping them.

Ms. Cochran had an engineering mind. To build her dishwashing machine, she first measured the cups and plates and then designed wire compartments to size. The compartments fit into a wheel that lay inside a copper boiler. Turning a wheel caused hot soapy water to squirt up and filter down through the dishes.

Called the Cochran Dishwasher, Ms. Cochrane's design won favor among her friends and among local hotels and restaurants. She patented her design and produced in commercially.

It was not until the 1920s that plumbing became a feature of the dishwashing machine. Designers added electric drying elements two decades later. Initially a commercial success, dishwashers became common features of the modern household kitchen in the 1970s. Dishwashers have never achieved the status of necessity, as have range stoves and refrigerators.

Carl von Linde, a German engineer, gets credit for the technology that made modern refrigerators possible. He invented a process for converting large amounts of liquid into gas, which made it possible to keep an enclosed space cool. In 1877 he received a patent from the German government for his refrigerator. While more than 200 companies were manufacturing refrigerators by the 1920s, it took a while for this new appliance to catch on domestically. By 1937 more than two million homes in the United States had refrigerators. By 1955 refrigerators were found in 80 percent of American homes, a figure that climbed to 99.5 percent by 2005.

Before the refrigerator households had other ways to keep food cold. Basements, icehouses, and running streams helped preserve food. Iceboxes, which consisted of insulted boxes with ice, were popular until the middle of the 20th century, when refrigerators started changing from being luxuries to being necessities. Even today refrigerators are affectionately called iceboxes.

Early refrigerators used toxic gases such as ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide as refrigerants. Because of fatal accidents involving these gases, American corporations collaborated on developing a less toxic material, which lead to the discovery of Freon, which quickly became the standard for refrigerators. Decades later scientists discovered that Freon caused serious damage to the ozone layer of the plant, after which Freon was banned.

Twenty-first century householders take their modern kitchen appliances for granted. Very few American homes are without fridge freezers, washing machines, microwaves, and range cookers. These appliances simplify household chores and fit well into today's busy lifestyles. The history of kitchen appliances reminds us that in times past people had other ways of accomplishing the cooking and cleaning. And it makes us wonder what future inventions will change the way we manage our households.

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