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RIP Frances Gabe, Inventor of the Self-Cleaning House

A figure once synonymous with suburban futurism dies in obscurity.

by Michael Byrne
Jul 19 2017, 10:00am

Los Angeles Times/1979

There was a time when innovation was not synonymous with information and communication. Data was for books and file cabinets and computers were esoteric machines that did math for scientists and missile commanders. In other words, innovation before the Information Age was mechanical; high-tech came in the form of cars and microwaves and vacuum cleaners.

Few things could be more emblematic of that era than the self-cleaning house, the invention of Frances Gabe, who passed away earlier this year at 101. To say she died in obscurity would be an understatement. The passing of the "quixotic dreamer and accomplished visionary" went almost completely unremarked until the New York Times published a belated obituary this week.

In January, Gabe's passing was noted in her local newspaper, the Newberg Graphic, in two spare sentences: "Frances passed away on Monday, December 26, 2016. Frances was a resident of Newberg, Oregon." She had outlived both of her children, while the self-cleaning house itself was sold after Gabe had been moved "kicking and screaming" to a nursing home, according to the Times.

About that house. While encapsulated in a single patent, the self-cleaning house was really a constellation of 68 different contraptions. The crux of the system was a network of sprayers installed in the ceilings of each room. When it came time to clean, they would literally just hose everything down with soap and water. The soaked rooms were then blown dry. The floors of the rooms were all slanted toward drains and everything was of course waterproof, including the furniture. According to a 2002 piece on Gabe in the Chicago Tribune, the patent itself hung from one wall shrouded in protective plastic wrap.

Other components of the self-cleaning house included a closet where clothes could be hung and then cleaned and dried in situ. A similar setup was in place for dishes. Fred Amram, a professor at the University of Minnesota, told the Tribune that the self-cleaning house patent was one of the longest he'd ever read. As the Willamette Week discovered a few years ago, the new owner of the self-cleaning house has largely dismantled its components.

Other examples of self-cleaning homes are scarce. Which is maybe not surprising because living in what amounts to a giant washing machine sounds miserable. Complete waterproofness is a limitation not lost on Gabe. "Water has been my biggest bugaboo," she told People in 1982.

For Gabe, it all started with a bit of fig jam dribbled down a wall. Fed up with the "back abuse" of constant housework, "I thought, darn it, this is more than I can handle," Gabe told the Tribune. "So I brought out the hose."

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