Where Washboards Are Corrugated and Celebrated

The country’s last remaining washboard factory is still cleaning up after nearly 130 years.

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It’s easy to feast on nostalgia along Main Street in Logan, Ohio.

The neat line of century-old brick storefronts, stretching for three blocks in this small town in Ohio’s Hocking Hills, south of Columbus, is a throwback to the days before people did their shopping at malls (or on the internet). There’s a charming gazebo park, an imposing white stone courthouse, and, just around the block, the Hocking Hills Moonshine Company.

But that heaping helping of old-timeyness becomes a virtual overdose the moment you walk through the doors of a former G.C. Murphy store and encounter something that is not just rare, but nearly extinct:

Washboards.

Row upon row of washboards, their shiny corrugated metal plates gleaming from frames of wood. And, floating from somewhere out back, the ker-thunk … ker-thunk of antique machines and their skilled operators cranking out even more washboards for a new, if dwindling, generation of washboard users and enthusiasts.

This is the showroom, factory, and shipping center for the Columbus Washboard Company, which has been producing an uninterrupted supply of washboards since 1895.

In its 30-year heyday between 1926 and 1955, until automatic washing machines conquered the world, the Columbus Washboard Company churned out some 15 million washboards. Today, in this modest storefront, the annual output totals 80,000 — apparently all the country needs, given that this is the only surviving U.S. washboard factory.

“Lots of people still use them for stain removal,” reports James Martin, a company co-owner who does double duty as manager of the factory.

“Say you’ve got egg on your shirt. You just get some laundry soap, wet the stain, and rub it on your washboard for 5 or 10 seconds, just like Grandma used to do.

“When you see the stain shifting, you throw it in the washer and you’re good to go!”

Of course, Saturday Evening Post readers of 80 years ago would have considered an explanation of how to use a washboard as preposterous as we’d deem a detailed description of running a kitchen garbage disposal. But there’s an undeniable visceral satisfaction in experiencing the stubborn persistence of a technology that’s barely one step beyond pounding your dirty laundry against rocks in a streambed.

Driving force: The company’s all-female crew churns out some 80,000 units a year. (Photo by Bill Newcott)

Weaving through the washboards — and displays of boutique laundry items like Grandma’s Laundry Stain Stick, wood drying racks, and clotheslines — Martin leads the way to the production area at the rear of the store. There, a friendly factory employee named Linda is enacting the 45-second washboard assembly sequence on equipment that predates the Wright Brothers’ first flight.

There’s no whirring of an electric motor; no hiss of steam power. The whole operation is conducted with a single foot pedal engaging a device that pushes slotted pieces of Ohio-grown poplar wood into place around a sheet of corrugated metal sourced from Chicago.

“We’re proud to use all U.S.-made materials,” says Jacqui Barnett, co-owner of Columbus Washboard since 1999. “It was really hard to find nails made in the U.S., but we finally got them.”

There’s a certain poignancy to the fact that two of the company’s four owners are women, when you consider that when Columbus Washboard was founded, women were not even allowed to vote.

“We’ve got two men owners and two women — and I think it’s fair to say the women are the ones more taken with the history of all this,” says Barnett. “Washboards have, for all their history, been associated with what the world would call ‘women’s work.’ And there are still places on Earth where this is the case.”

For example, she adds, “When my husband and I went to China for a month, I brought along a washboard, a clothesline, and clothespins. And I did all my own laundry there.”

The Amish community still buys lots of washboards, as do interior designers and crafts enthusiasts. These days, most people are probably familiar with washboards as rhythm instruments — musicians with names like Mad Fingers McBride, The North Mississippi Allstars, and Washboard Hank draw fans nationwide as they tour the U.S. and Canada. A skilled washboarder will concoct elaborate rhythm patterns to accompany guitars, pianos, and sometimes jugs, rapping away at the corrugated metal surface, often wearing fingertip thimbles or wielding spoons or wire brushes.

The practice can be traced back to a musical form called hamboning, which arose in West Africa and came to these shores with enslaved people. Eventually, musical washboards boomeranged back across the Atlantic: When future Beatle John Lennon started his first band, The Quarrymen, he enlisted his oldest friend, Peter Shotton, to play a washboard. (It was Shotton who soon suggested they add an actual musician he knew, a kid named Paul McCartney.)

That legacy is not lost on the folks at the Columbus Washboard Company: At their store and online you can buy washboards tricked out with traditional musical accoutrements like cowbells, hotel desk bells, and kitchen sink drains.

Scrub down: British-born factory manager James Martin and washboards go way back: “I’d come home from school in my
uniform and my mum would say, ‘Get that shirt off!’ Then she’d have me do the pre-treatment on her washboard.” (Photo by Bill Newcott)

The Logan Washboard Arts and Music Festival erupts every Father’s Day weekend on the street just outside these doors, as washboard musicians from near and far — along with their more conventional guitar, fiddle, and accordion-playing associates — take the stage for the Annual Washboard Fest.

“It’s quite a party,” says “Washboard Hank” Fisher, a Canadian folk music legend who’s been touring North America, washboard in hand, for more than 40 years.

“I first started playing the washboard because I didn’t know how to play anything else,” he says from his home in Ontario. “But it taught me rhythm, and that helped me learn to play guitar and banjo.”

Fisher proudly performs on a Canadian-made washboard laden with pots, pans, bells, license plates, and duck calls. He calls it his “Stradovarious Washboard.”

Come Father’s Day, Washboard Hank says, he’ll be on Main Street in Logan, playing “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain.”

Look up “Washboard (Musical Instrument)” on Wikipedia and you’ll find a photo of a woman playing a Maid-Rite washboard, one of numerous brand names produced by Columbus Washboard. For decades, the place cranked out washboards, all otherwise virtually identical, with names like Sunnyland, Dubl Handi, and Country. The reason for that variety was simple, and sort of ingenious.

“Woolworths gave you shelf space based on how many products you sold,” Martin explains. “So the company quickly designed new imprints to get more exposure.”

For more than a century, the Columbus Washboard Company operated out of a large factory/warehouse closer to Columbus. A few decades ago, as the demand for washboards dwindled, the company moved to a former shoe factory in Logan, nestled in Ohio’s Hocking Hills. The move to the former five and dime on Main Street came in 2022, creating more foot traffic.

“Initially, people who wander in don’t think we’re for real,” says Barnett. “Then we take them on a tour, show them the equipment we’ve been using since the 1890s, and they’re pretty amazed.”

There are stories you get to tell only when you own a company founded the year before Henry Ford sold his first “quadricycle”: In the factory’s small dispatch area, Martin points out a nondescript piece of equipment standing against a wall. Tall and thin, it bears an orange, diamond-shaped plate that reads: “Acme Silver Stitcher, Acme Steel Company, Chicago, ILL.”

“Not the same Acme company the Coyote did business with in the Road Runner cartoons,” he says.

The contraption staples shipping boxes together — creating one staple at a time from a long spool of wire. It was delivered to Columbus Washboard Company in 1927.

Several years ago, the thing broke. On a hunch, Martin looked up Acme Steel and was surprised to see it still existed as a subsidiary of a larger company. He called Acme, hoping they might still have some old wiring diagrams lying around. They asked for a serial number and got back to him a few days later.

“They said, ‘We’ve found your receipt, and it states you have a lifetime warranty, so we’re gonna send someone out to fix it,’” Martin recalls, his amazement still apparent.

Of course, Martin was still required to pay for the necessary replacement part.

That set the company back $1.75.

 

Bill Newcott is the award-winning film critic for The Saturday Evening Post. For more about the author, visit billnewcott.com.

This article is featured in the May/June 2024 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. Back in the day- probably 1973-74 I worked for Acme Steel , out of Chicago, and sold Silver Stitchers for making boxes and Acme Steel Strapping for securing boxes and rail car strapping for heavy shipments! Before shrink wrap and stretch wrap and plastic strap. Sold tons of it!!

  2. Very enjoyable feature, Bill. I might just order a Maid-Rite washboard as I do like to pre-treat and hopefully get rid possible stains (usually grease) out of a nice shirt before going into the washing machine, as stated. I have a washer with the dryer on top,

    We (of course) had a washing machine at home, but not a dryer, nor a dishwasher. I usually helped mom hang everything up on the clothes line, with the pins. She was a Depression child that (in many ways) never got over the ’30s, then the shortages of the ’40s during World War II. So thrift was very important. The fact we could afford the previous was irrelevant. Still, she’d splurge on ‘us kids’ and herself here and there, but definitely not regularly.

    I already like the people at this company without having met them! The fact everything is made in the U.S. is important to them and me. They can, and should be proud of just that alone. Perhaps a feature in the ‘Made In America’ segment on ABC’s World News Tonight might be something to look into also.

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