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This story originally aired in the Dec. 30, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.
The Columbus Washboard Company in Logan, Ohio is the last and only washboard factory in the United States. Founded in 1895, the company has more recently adapted its product to meet the varied needs of its customers, many of whom are musicians.
Jacqui Barnett is one of the owners of the Columbus Washboard Company. She is a New Zealand native who has lived in the Logan area for decades. Logan has become a destination for musicians to visit.
“We have people come out of the woodwork to play washboards,” Barnett said. “We invite some, but the other ones just turn up.”
Below the company’s storefront, in the basement, is where the washboards are made. In some ways, the factory floor looks more like an antique store filled with old machinery. One of the machines drills holes into the wooden legs of the washboard.
“The machine is original, from the early 1900s,” Barnett said. “The company was started in 1895, and these machines were introduced in the early 1900s.”
There is also a crimping machine, which shapes the metal that becomes the body of the washboard. One of the staff feeds a roll of stainless steel into one side of the machine. As the metal works its way through the machine, a smooth sheet becomes crumpled like an accordion. Depending on the machine’s setting, the metal can also be impressed with a spiral pattern while it is crimped. One crimp pattern is called a double handy crimp.
“One side of it is coarse for scrubbing socks and bluejeans, getting grass stains out of them. The other side is soft and rounded for your lingerie. This was used many, many years ago, and it’s still used today,” Barnett said.
The original purpose of a washboard was to wash clothing. But over time, the humble washboard has taken on many roles including as home decoration and as a musical instrument.
The concept of using a washboard in music is nothing new. Washboard playing traces back to hambone, a style of music with roots in African drum playing. Enslaved people were forbidden to use drums in an attempt to stifle self-expression. So they used clapping, stomping and household items like the washboard to make the rhythm that would otherwise have been played on a drum.
Over the years, makers like The Columbus Washboard Company have innovated the design of the washboard to enhance its function as an instrument. Musicians reached out to the company with suggestions for how to improve washboards for use as an instrument. As the last remaining washboard maker in the United States, Barnett and her team have taken care to incorporate player’s suggestions into product design.
“I actually had musicians calling me, and one of them suggested, ‘Why don’t we try stainless steel?’ At the time, the tin that we were using was very thin and would wear out, and so we also introduced a heavier gauge galvanized metal,” Barnett said.
Not only do different metals vary in durability — they make different sounds, too.
Joe Rose is a new washboard player from Chillicothe, Ohio. Rose has been experimenting with the various sounds washboards can make. He says different crimping patterns create different sound effects. And what you use to strum the washboard with can change the sound, too.
“Usually you need something metal to magnify the sound to it and, depending on the type of metal it’s made out of, it’s going to make a deeper or more bright sound to it,” Rose said.
And there are lots of metal tools to choose from: thimbles, whisks, banjo picks, and even shotgun shells. Ultimately, the washboard is a percussion instrument. Jacqui Barnett said remembering that is the secret to washboard playing.
“It’s just a matter of pretending you’ve got a drum set in front of you, and you just make different noises and different sounds and just strum to the music.”
With so many options, some players want customized washboards.
Breezy Peyton, of Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, is one musician who has collaborated with Columbus Washboard to make a custom instrument. Peyton said she is one of the few full-time professional washboard players in the world. Her passion for playing the washboard comes from her family’s Kentucky roots.
“My granny Fanny, which was my great-grandma, had one on the wall of her house growing up, so I’d kind of messed around with it a little bit. But I studied just a lot of drumming techniques to learn the washboard and I listened to a lot of old jug band and blues music that had it,” Peyton said. “Washboard Sam was one of my favorites.”
Washboard Sam was an African American blues musician who was a washboard playing pioneer. He was such a legend, his washboard is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Influenced by giants like Washboard Sam, Peyton — who’s white — started playing used washboards she would find at antique stores. Her first was a Columbus Washboard.
“A lot of times these antique ones, I mean, they’d been used to clean clothes and stuff. So they’re pretty worn out,” Peyton said. “So I was wearing through them really quick. And I was like…I should really think about just buying new ones.”
When Peyton was ready to invest in new instruments, she reached out to Columbus Washboard, in part, because using an instrument made in the United States is something she values.
“It was important to me to play an instrument that was close to home, and I couldn’t believe that it was just down the street, really… in Columbus, Ohio or outside of Columbus, where they made them,” Peyton said.
Peyton considers how and where she will play a washboard when she is selecting which types she needs to play.
“When I’m recording, like in a studio, I generally use a brass washboard, but I use a galvanized or stainless steel on tour because it gives me a little bit more volume, and the brass is a little bit softer, so it’s better in a studio setting.”
Even though the stainless and galvanized steel washboards are made to be more durable, Peyton still goes through a lot of them.
“I play a new one almost every day because I wear through them because I play such an aggressive style of washboard,” Peyton said.
Peyton is not the only washboard player Columbus Washboard supports. The company strives to make washboard music accessible to all. They helped establish the Washboard Festival in Logan, Ohio where people of all ages and experience levels can get on stage and play.
The Columbus Washboard Company, and the Washboard Festival, have managed to capture the spirit of washboard playing — taking an everyday item and incorporating it into an art form.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.