FindingDulcinea examines some of the inventions that have helped make household chores a breeze.

October 12, 2010

by Lindsey Chapman

Housework: it’s not the most exciting part of a person’s day, but fortunately it’s not as hard to accomplish as it used to be. FindingDulcinea examines some of the inventions that have helped make household chores a breeze.

The Dishwasher

As society has gotten progressively busier, the time people have for tasks like dishwashing has shrunk considerably. Josephine Cochrane, a socialite in the 1800s, found herself irritated at the fact that her servants frequently chipped her fine china as they washed them. After deciding she would wash the dishes herself, she realized it wasn’t a job she really wanted.

Cochrane conjured up an automatic dishwasher to take care of the task. Others had developed dishwashers before her, but Josephine’s “Cochrane Dishwasher” was the first to be commercially successful.

Businesses took to Cochrane’s machine easily, but housewives, a few of whom said they enjoyed washing dishes by hand, steered clear for awhile. It didn’t help that the dishwasher needed a lot of hot water, and not all homes had hot water heaters up to the task.

It wasn’t until the 1950s when women’s attitudes toward housework began changing that the dishwasher became a common appliance in a home.

What’s a dishwasher without detergent? According to MIT’s Inventor of the Week Archive, Dennis W. Weatherby, a chemist, “will forever be associated” with the creation of Cascade dishwashing detergent. He was just 27 when he led a team in the creation of dishwashing soap. Their challenge was to formulate a solution that used yellow dyes that wouldn’t stain dishes and dishwashing machines (as previous products did), and also included a bleach.

Today, Weatherby’s formula, patented in 1987, is the basis for all “lemon-scented” cleaning products with bleach.

Vacuum Cleaners

For a long time, keeping a home clean required a lot of elbow grease. Electricity played a large part in changing the way we operate. With it, inventors were able to power motors that could help perform the muscle-driven jobs.

A British civil engineer named H. Cecil Booth patented a vacuum cleaner in 1901. He thought up his creation after watching workers clean railroad seats using a machine that blew air at the fabric to force the dirt out. Booth thought sucking the dirt in was a better idea, and developed a motor-powered reciprocating pump to perform the work.

Over in the United States, Murray Spangler, an American inventor who worked as a janitor at night during 1907, had a problem. Sweeping floors aggravated his asthma.

He harnessed his creativity to turn a tin soap box, a pillow case, a fan and a broom handle into a “suction sweeper” that pulled dust out of the air. It occurred to Spangler that his invention had potential, and he looked for financial support.

W.H. “Boss” Hoover,” who owned a leather goods and manufacturing shop, liked what Spangler had made, and purchased the patent from him in 1908. He kept Spangler on as a partner, and with a small team of helpers, they began assembling sweepers in Hoover’s shop. With a good sales plan, the team eventually established a national dealer network.

Paper Towels

Paper towels have been mopping up spills around homes for years, but it was actually a school teacher who prompted their creation in 1907. Convinced that children were catching colds because they all shared a cloth towel, she cut heavy paper squares for kids to use separately. The Scott Paper Company capitalized on the idea and introduced Sani-Towels to commercial customers that same year. Paper towels for household use were sold in 1931, “creating a whole new grocery category,” according to the Scott Paper Company Web site.

Matters of Efficiency

Psychologist, engineer and efficiency expert Lillian Moller Gilbreth demanded a high standard of organization for her family of 14. She invented the foot-pedal trash can and thought up the idea of putting shelves inside refrigerator doors. Webster University said that her “desire to apply efficiency techniques to homemakers’ duties did not come solely from an interest in efficiency, but also from a desire that they gain some freedom and fulfillment.”

Sources in this Story

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