Mothers of Invention: Frances GABe – Owner of U.S. Patent No. 4,428,085 (Self-Cleaning House)

FranceGabeHomeShe was born Frances Grace Arnholtz in Boise, Idaho in 1915.  She adored her father, Frederick Arnholtz, a building contractor and architect, tagging along with him on his job sites from the time she was three years old.  Her mother (name unknown) died when Frances was young and her father had jobs all over the Pacific Northwest, so her “family” was the construction workers who taught her all she would ever need to know about building her “dream house” someday.

She attended eighteen different grade schools and at age twelve she was enrolled in the Girl’s Polytechnic School in Portland, Oregon.  In two years she completed her high school education, graduating in 1929 at age fourteen.  In 1932, at the age of seventeen, she married Herbert Bateson who was an electrical engineer – at least by training.  For some reason, Bert never seemed to work very much or just had odd jobs here and there, so Frances was forced to work to support their family (they had at least two children).

FrancesGabeAfter her first child was born she started a home repair business in Portland, even though she was partially blinded for eighteen years after the child’s birth — and she was a success.  According to Charles Carey, author of American Inventors, Entrepreneurs, and Business Visionaries, her husband was so embarrassed by her success that he demanded she stop using his name.  Grace came up with a new name to be known by, taking the initials “GAB” (derived from her entire married name “Grace Arnholtz Bateson”) and tacking an “e” on the end so she wouldn’t be called “Gab”.  In 1978, shortly after changing her name, she and Bert separated and eventually divorced.  Bert continued to live on the property in a small mobile home/trailer until his death.

According to one source, Frances began formulating an idea for a self-cleaning house around 1955.  She would remark many times, “housework is a thankless, unending job”.  By the 1980’s she had applied for more than five dozen patents, first designing the devices she would use in her self-cleaning home.  According to a Christian Science Monitor article in 1982, she was still working on perfecting the house.  The home she built was about 30 feet by 45 feet and the main cleaning apparatus was a sprayer with two nozzles which, like a light fixture, hung from the ceiling in each room of her house (all floors sloping slightly toward a floor drain).  The device was water-powered and sprayed a fine mist of soap, followed by a rinse and a hot-air dry.

Other apparatuses/inventions included (Christian Science Monitor – May 12, 1982):

  • A closet that washes and dries clothes.
  • A kitchen cupboard that functions as a dishwasher.
  • Dresser drawers with a “honeycomb” bottom to allow dust to fall to a slightly sloping floor and easily washed away.
  • The toilet was dry.
  • The fireplace hosed its own ashes down a pipe and into the garden.

Frances also had some foresight to avoid future problems by building the windows flush with the walls.  She designed book covers to protect books whenever the room needed to be cleaned.  She designed her own furniture made of a waterproof composition.  A whirlpool-type bathtub, shaped like a comfortable chair, was equipped to squirt a degreaser and clean the tub.  There is no carpeting or drapery in her house (dust-catchers!) – for privacy the windows are amber-tinted.  According to the Monitor article, the sprayers also cleaned the family dog!

Her neighbors have referred to her as a “dumb bat”, but according to one professor at the University of Minnesota, her design is “incredibly complex, the longest I’ve ever read”.  Her patent for “Self-Cleaning Building Construction” hangs in her living room, and as might you guess, is covered by plastic wrap.  In 2002, she was interviewed and conducted a brief tour of her house.  The video is posted here if you would like to hear Frances briefly talk about her invention, and see the inside of the house.

In the video, she remarks that part of the reason she designed the home was that she thought someday she would be old and not able to clean her house (at the time of the video she is in a wheelchair).  I’m not entirely sure if she is still living, but the last mention I found of her was a blog article written in 2010 which inferred she was still alive.  If you type her name in a search engine, you’ll find plenty of information if you’d like to know more.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


  1. I would have her invent a bathroom cleaner – take out the trash. Love it!

    • I hear that — trash duty ain’t my favorite!

  2. Hey there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your post seem to be running off the screen in Ie. I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you know. The design look great though! Hope you get the issue fixed soon. Kudos

    • Sorry about that .. not sure what happened. I’ve never noticed any web browser compatibility issues. Thanks for reading!

  3. Wow, wonderful blog layout! How lengthy have you ever been running a blog for? you made blogging glance easy. The whole look of your web site is great, as well as the content!

  4. It’s fantastic know that a self-cleaning house is real! Very nice post! Very enlightening!

    • Thank you very much for stopping by!

  5. I live in Newberg and I knew Frances Gabe for many years and spent a lot of time with her in her “self-cleaning” house and was always amazed at the constant media coverage because basically the house was a concrete block structure with lawn sprinklers on the ceiling, a sloped floor and a giant blow dryer. I argued with her that the only place this system would work would be in restrooms because in a house you couldn’t have musical instruments, or antiques, or fine furniture, or any wooden furniture for that matter, unless it was encased in plastic, because everything would get wet, and moldy, As far as I know she never operated the sprinklers either. Most of her interviews were phone interviews by reporters who read about the house in other articles and actually never saw it, and the stories just kept going. I wasn’t aware that she ever got patents on any of her inventions. I know she applied for several but never came up with the funds to pay the search and patent fees. It was all pretty crazy.

    • It sounded crazy — could just have well put this under the “Far-Out Friday” category as well. This article has been one of the most popular ones here at Digging History, however — go figure. Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

    • A prophet has no honor among his people. 🙂 She was ahead of her time. And in today’s world of rot resistant furniture, there’s no reason it couldn’t work. I saw her video on youtube. Fascinating. And she did get a patent. She’s a legend among architecture students and feminist the world over.

      • Yes, I found the patent record so that’s unquestionable. Way ahead of her time … thanks for stopping by!



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