Friday and Saturday of Father’s Day weekend each year, the city of Logan, Ohio, closes its Main St. and hosts a musical celebration there in honor of the washboard.
In 1868, the washboard was dubbed by the New York Times as a great American invention.
The last remaining manufacturer of washboards in the United States called The Columbus Washboard Company was established in 1895, and its facility is now in Logan. The company has spearheaded the annual Washboard Music Festival for the past 10 years along with the help of many area sponsors and volunteers.
The washboard nearly went extinct
Prior to the early 1970s, as many as ten washboard factories were in operation in the United States. Tiffin, Ohio, was once considered the washboard capital of the world. But by 1999, all but The Columbus Washboard Company were out of business, and it was poised to go under as well.
A partnership of friends and family stepped forward and purchased the business. This partnership included two couples, Jacqui and Bevan Barnett and Larry and Joyce Gerstner. Today, the company is entirely owned by these four, and in 2009, James Martin, owner of the Carbolic Soap Company in England, bought into the company.
The factory sells approx. 20,000 washboards a year and has customers all over the world. Ace Hardware is their number one customer.
When asked why they purchased the business, Jacqui Barnett replied,
“It is a pleasure to keep a piece of American History alive for future generations to enjoy.”
The original laundry device
Previous to the washboard, the traditional method of washing clothes was by soaking them in streams or beating them on rocks. Early washboards consisted of a wooden board which had grooves cut across it to provide a rough surface for rubbing the clothing. However, patent records do not provide a clear answer as to who it was that invented the first metal washboard.
An early washboard, approx. 1700s. (Photo by Sharon K. West)
According to the website, “Old & Interesting,” a rough timeline of the patented development of the washboard is as follows:
1797 – The date of a lost US patent believed to be for a washing machine using a washboard as part of its design.
1799 – An English newspaper reported about washing machines with an upright washboard on the inside. The Oxford English Dictionary uses this date as the earliest example of a washboard.
1833 – Stephen Rust, Manlius, New York, gets the first patent for a metal washboard.
1842 – Marcellus Sands, Franklin, New York, patents a wooden washboard coated in rubber.
1877 – Hermann Liebmann, Chicago, Illinois, patented an improvement using perforated glass or porcelain or terracotta.
1883 – Robert W. Harper, Evansville, Indiana, patents certain new and useful improvements in the washboard.
The washboard is part of American musical history
The Columbus Washboard Company not only has preserved the washboard for its traditional use, it provides the device for bands and music enthusiasts as a percussion instrument. The washboard has a long and unique history of use in music as well as in the laundry.
Souped up washboards with any number of extras, such as horns, whistles, bells, or cymbals, are strapped around the neck and played with spoons or thimbles on each finger and rubbed across the surface in time to the music.
Souped up washboards ready to be played. (Photo by Sharon K. West)
Different sounds on the washboard are determined by the type of metal and how it is crimped.
The washboard is traditionally used in jazz, jug band, folk, Dixieland, and skiffle styles, although it is not limited to any one form of music.
The Washboard Music Festival is called Ohio’s Most Unique Music Festival.
The Washboard Troop Kit
The washboard is a convenient, portable tool for washing clothes when other means are not available. This is especially true for American soldiers stationed in places such as Iraq. The Columbus Washboard Company provides a “Washboard Troop Kit” to soldiers which consists of a washboard, a washtub made of recycled materials, a clothesline, clothespins, soap, and foot powder.
Letters from soldiers who have received these kits include heartfelt gratitude and testimonies of how the kit has improved their quality of life when there is no other way to wash clothes. They express how much it means to them to know people back home care. A donation of $25 payable to The Columbus Washboard Factory, 14 Gallagher Ave., Logan, OH 43138, will provide a kit for one soldier.
The washboard’s long history provides proof that sometimes an invention just cannot be further improved upon and simple devices are exactly what are needed.