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What is a Washboard?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2016
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The washboard is a device that was originally designed to aid in the process of hand washing clothes. In the days before modern washing machines, many homes kept several different sizes of washboards in the home, which made the cleaning tool ideal for both large and small articles of clothing, bed sheets, and other home textiles. Along with a galvanized washtub, no 19th century home was considered complete without at least one washboard.

Designed as a simple device, the typical washboard was constructed with a wooden frame that was rectangular in shape. The frame housed a section of metal that was characterized by a series of ridges that ran the length of the metal plate. Two short legs were included in the wooden frame. While some models of the washboard also used hardwoods for the ridged section of the washboard, those had all but disappeared by the latter part of the 19th century. Zinc was the metal of choice for most washboards from the 1850’s forward, with galvanized steel eventually replacing the zinc inserts.

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Using a washboard required placing the legs of the device within a washtub that was filled with hot soapy water. With the legs resting in the tub, the washboard was positioned against the chest area for stability. Clothing would be soaked in the water, then rubbed vigorously across the ridges of the board. Following this process would help to remove a number of stubborn stains from clothing. Once the job of washing clothes was finished, the washboard could be placed outside in the sun or hung on a rack to dry. Within minimum care, a good quality washboard would last for years.

After the advent of the washing machine, use of the washboard as a home appliance began to fall from favor. Over time, decorative models of the washboard have become common in some homes. Boards that feature tempered glass or brass for the ridged component are very common today. In addition to use as a decorating accent, several genres of music make use of the washboard as a musical instrument. The musical washboard is often employed with country and western, bluegrass, and folk music.

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