Using a Washboard – Old Technology That Still Works

A washboard is a tool for hand washing clothes. As mechanized clothing cleaning became more common by the end of the twentieth century, the washboard became more well-known for its secondary use as a musical instrument.

Although it may appear to be an archaic method of doing laundry, using a washboard is an efficient way to handwash clothing. The ridged surfaces on these boards are non-abrasive. Washboards save energy and are less expensive to operate than washing machines.

Washboards are back in style for people who like completing chores in an organic, eco-friendly way. Here’s how to use a washboard to do your laundry quickly and efficiently.

What Exactly Is a Washboard?

The washboard was originally designed to help with handwashing clothes. Many homes kept several different sizes of washboards before modern washing machines, making the cleaning instrument ideal for bed sheets, small and large articles of clothing, and other home textiles. No 19th-century residence was deemed complete without at least one washboard, in addition to a galvanized washtub.

The typical washboard was built with a rectangular wooden frame and was built as a simple device. The frame housed a portion of metal distinguished by a series of ridges running the length of the metal plate. The wooden frame included two short legs.

While some washboard models utilized hardwoods for the ridged segment of the washboard, these had all but vanished by the late 19th century. From the 1850s onward, most washboards were made of zinc, with galvanized steel ultimately replacing the zinc inserts.

Using a washboard necessitated placing the device’s legs in a washtub full to the brim with hot soapy water. The washboard was placed against the chest region for stability while the legs rested in the tub.

Garments would be soaked in water and vigorously rubbed across the board’s ridges. Following this procedure would aid in the removal of a variety of tough stains from clothing. When the job of washing clothes was complete, the washboard could be mounted on a rack to dry or placed out in the sun to dry.

A high-quality washboard will last for years with minimal care.

The Origins of Washboards

Washboards, originally known as scrubbing boards, were invented around 1797. Previously, people would wash their clothes in tubs with wood ash mixed with water. They would then trample or beat the clothing using wooden bats until it was clean.

A simpler method was to wash clothes in rivers and streams, where natural water friction could clean them. Many people also smacked their clothing against rocks!

Ridged washboards were originally made entirely of wood. Steel and zinc ridges replaced wood ridges in the 19th century, but the wooden frames remained.

Making Use of a Washboard

a woman washing laundry with an antique washboard
Victorian woman washing laundry with an antique washboard

You can wash your clothes on a working washboard. You can use it both indoors and outdoors, but you’ll need two basins. You can use a bathtub as one, but you should use galvanized metal basins because they are strong, sturdy, and do not rust.

There are various laundry soap bars to try, but use more concentrated ones for items like sheets and towels and gentle laundry soaps for apparel and other delicate items. You can also use liquid laundry detergent.

If necessary, pretreat any stained stuff and set them aside for five to ten minutes. Fill one of your basins with warm water and, if using, add liquid detergent.

Allow the clothes to soak in soapy water for 15 to 20 minutes. Then, immerse the washboard in water. Scrub the items against the washboard to create physical agitation, which forces the soap, water, and dirt through the fabric. While working, keep rinsing the garments in soapy water.

Ways to Use Washboards

If you’re still unsure of using a washboard, you can read about how they’ve been used in the past. Although using this tool to wash clothes is still common in many parts of the world, the Columbus Washboard Company is the only U.S. manufacturer today.

A laundry soap bar may be the more traditional way to go with these newer products, but it can get your garments nice and clean. You use the soap bar instead of your hands against the washboard. When using a washboard, it’s best to wear kitchen gloves because the water can dry out your hands.

Washboards are now commonly used as decorative items, and if you come across one in an antique store, you’re in luck. They look great as garden decors, and you can even grow climbing greenery over them. You can also utilize them to decorate for the holidays.

The washboard is also used as a musical instrument and a decorative accent in several genres of music. Jug bands used washboards in the 1920s.

The washboard is frequently used in bluegrass, country, western, and folk music. Washboard sounds are still used in many genres, including folk, skiffle, jazz, and zydeco music.

What Is the Best Way to Play a Washboard?

Bradley S. (Of Boo Bradley, Madison WI Busking on a washboard with listeners surrounding him

A band can benefit from using a washboard to add a range of interesting rhythms and sounds. The board can be played with a wooden spoon, whisk broom, brush or drum stick, or thimbles while held in the crook of one arm. It can also be fastened around the neck with a strap or secured between the knees and played with two hands while sitting.

The 1+2+3+4+ rhythm sequence can be performed with thimbles on the fingers by dragging your dominant hand’s fingers down the board for one count. Then, for the +, tap a thimble-adorned finger on the opposite hand. Then, with the dominant hand, strike down the board for the accented two. Rep these steps for three + four +.

A nice soft sound is produced by holding the board with one arm and playing using a whisk broom. Try to play down, down, up-down, down, or get that chugga, chugga sound going. You’ll be shocked at how many songs you’ll be able to play along with.

The use of the washboard as household appliances began to decline after the invention of the washing machine, but some still use them to wash clothes when off the grid. Decorative washboard models have become popular in some homes over time. Today, brass or tempered glass boards for the ridged component are very common.