From suds to strummin’, vintage washboards are in demand

As adults we have daily and weekly chores and one of those is the dreaded wash day set aside for doing laundry. Can you imagine what it would be like to not have a washer and dryer or even a laundromat to go to? Without washers and dryers, we would be forced into cleaning our clothes by hand. This doesn’t sound like an easy task to me nor something I want to envision. Back in the days before washing machines came along women used washboards. Even with the use of washboards, laundry day was still a very strenuous task and required a great deal of effort and time.

Washboards have often been referred to as one of the “great American inventions,” but for many it’s also known as the “poor man’s” instrument. The flat board with a ribbed surface was believed to have originated in Scandinavia around the turn of the 19th century, although some argue washboards date back as far as the mid 1700s. According to research, the first patent for a metal washboard was submitted February 9, 1833 by S. Rust of New York. This new patented idea was made with a piece of fluted tin, sheet iron, copper or zinc. In 1842, another patent was submitted; this time for a rubber coated wooden washboard. As the years progressed and the idea of making washdays a little less dreadful by using the newly-patented invention, washboard companies began popping up all over the United States.

Actually, the only existing washboard manufacturer in the United States, Columbus Washboard Company, displays a washboard with markings on it that could be from the slavery era. It is believed the slaves used the board during the day for laundry purposes and then strummed on it at night for their musical pleasure. Washboards have a wood body or frame with a scrubbing area that can be made of wood, copper, brass, tin, zinc-coated metal, pottery and graniteware as well as glass. Some scrubbing surfaces after the turn of the century were made of aluminum-coated steel and sheet metal. The first washboards made by Columbus Washboard Company were handcrafted in the back yard of founder Frederic Martin Sr. Since they were handmade a very limited amount were actually sold. Records indicate there were fewer than 1,000 washboards produced and sold within the first 30 years the company was in business.

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Martin Sr. founded the company in 1895, and 30 years later Frederick Martin Jr. bought the assets of the company from his father, which included a crimping machine. Before the crimping machine was used, the scrubbing area or “waves” were made by hand. With the invention of the crimping machine, the company was able to produce more washboards and the sales of the company began to sky-rocket. From 1926 through 1955, it is reported the family-owned business produced and sold over 15 million washboards. Today, the company sells approximately 20,000 washboards each year, each one taking only 45 seconds to produce. This is surely a speedier process than cranking them out by hand as Martin Sr. did in 1895.

Glass washboards were popular during World War II due to a shortage of metal. The body was made of wood, but the scrubbing area was glass. Once the war ended metal became more readily available and companies began making metal washboards once again. There are records indicating glass washboards were still manufactured but did not hold up as well as the metal ones because of the glass breaking. Washboards were normally two-sided with one side having more refined ridges and also came in a variety of sizes. The smaller washboards were used for delicates such as undergarments and petticoats, while larger washboards were used for such items of clothing as shirts and pants.

There were several major washboard companies besides the Columbus Washboard Company, which included The National Washboard Company, The Cleveland Washboard Company and The Superior Washboard Company. Out of all the companies, Columbus Washboard Company is the only one still in operation today (115 years later). The company is located in a small quaint community in southeastern Ohio and manufactures washboards for washing clothes as well as to use in arts and crafts and for musical instruments. In fact, 40 percent of all washboards manufactured by the company are still used for laundry. The remaining 60 percent are sold for musical instruments and décor purposes.

The company still utilizes all of the original machinery that was used when the company was first founded. Jacqui Barnett, owner, said all washboards today are made using local poplar wood frames with inserts of galvanized metal, stainless steel, brass and glass. Chalkboard and cork as well as mirrors are used for decorative washboards. While many of the washboards are primarily used as musical instruments or for décor purposes, we should keep in mind, the Amish and a lot of the Mennonite communities do not have electricity. Therefore, they must do their laundry by hand with the aid of a washboard. Washboards quickly fell out of popularity when the washing machine was invented. The new machines were equipped with an agitator that actually served the same purpose as the washboard.

If you are a collector of vintage washboards, look for signs of wear especially on the legs. The legs of the washboards were submerged in water most of the time and should show signs of rotting on the bottom. Vintage or antique washboards also should have a worn patina of some sort from constant use. The older washboards may bear the names “Bear Easy,” Dubl Handi, Maid-Rite, Sunnyland or Top Notch. These are just a few of the names imprinted on the washboards made in earlier days. The most collectible and most expensive washboards are those with pottery washing surfaces. Enamelware washboards are also very collectible. The rarest of all are the hand-carved or hand-crafted washboards from the days when the Columbus Washboard Company was first founded.

Throughout the years, washboards were not only popular as an everyday necessity of household items, but became popular with many musicians. Washboards became known as the “poor man’s” instrument due to the musicians’ lack of finances to purchase real musical instruments. Jug bands used washboard as instruments beginning in the 1920s. Today many performers of zydeco, jazz, jug band and other folk music musicians use them. They are very popular in the south where the Cajuns call them frottoirs or rubboards. A frottoir is a washboard without the wood frame; only the metal portion is used. Normally when playing a washboard or a frottoir, the musician wears metal thimbles on several fingers and rubs these fingers across the surface of the instrument.

If you are a collector of washboards, you can find a huge variety of name brands at the Scott Antique Markets in Ohio and Georgia. Diane Garner of Wakeman, Ohio is one of many vendors selling these collectibles at the Ohio market. Garner has been a small business owner for the past 26 years and showcases her antiques at the Ohio show quite often. Primitives are Garner’s specialty, but she also carries a wide range of antiques to satisfy everyone’s appetite. Garner offers larger furniture pieces as well as toys, linens, small stands, shelves, beds, dressers, cabinets, pottery and a host of other items including washboards. She travels and buys at auctions, flea markets and sometimes from other vendors at the market. “It’s a great business to be in,” Garner stated. “A true learning experience all of the time! It’s amazing what you can learn from your customers if you just take a moment to listen.”

One of Garner’s favorite items to sell at Scott Antique Markets is washboards. She said the size, shape and make doesn’t matter because everyone is intrigued by the ridged primitives. Prices vary depending on the type of washboard, size and condition, the advertising as well as age. Among her personal collection, Garner has a “Crystal Cascade” made by the Columbus Washboard Company.

Garner noted that before the days of the washboard, our ancestors used “washing bats” which were made of tree branches or sticks and sometimes called ìbeetlesî. These were used for beating clothes clean. “Somehow I just can’t see myself in the middle of a creek beating the tar out of a table linen, although it may be a great stress relief on a bad day!” Garner joked.

Garner can be found at least three months out of the five months Scott Antique Markets is in Columbus. The Columbus market runs from November through March each year, while the Georgia market is held the second weekend each month throughout the year.  For more information on Scott Antique Markets contact 740-569-4912 or visit our website


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