On display in your Vanishing Texana Museum are many artifacts that were considered labor saving but by today’s standards are considered labor intensive. Our new washboard exhibit is an example of this. The exhibit includes a National Washboard (on loan from Arturo Ybarra), a Flyer Brass Board, a child’s glass framed washboard, and even a “washing machine” manufactured in the late 1800’s.
For the uninitiated, washboards were used to clean clothes. Most washboards have a wavy metal surface built into a wooden frame. Typically women would soak the clothes in soapy water and then rub them against the metal surface (versus pounding them on a rock) of the washboard. The clothes were then rinsed in a tub of water, sometimes a cauldron of boiling water.
There is no recorded inventor of the washboard, but we do know that in 1797 a Mr. James King received a patent for a “hand powered wash board.” Later, in 1837, a Mr. Stephen Rust received a patent for the “rippled surface” that is found on almost every washboard still around.
Mass production of washboards coincided with the Industrial Revolution when a 19- year-old named Edward Kemp opened a screen door manufacturing business in 1884. It wasn’t until 1891, when the company moved from Wabash, Ind. to Rhinelander, Wis. that the product line was expanded to include wash boards and stove boards. Stove boards were made of metal or ceramics and protected the wall and floor areas behind cast iron stoves. Kemp moved the headquarters for his business to Chicago where he forms up a partnership with Sears-Roebuck. The Sears relationship provides Kemp with the capital to purchase competitors and consolidate his hold on the market. One of the companies he acquires is the National Washboard Company which becomes the most popular of his brands. Kemp dies unexpectedly in 1916, but his business partners and their future families run the businesses all the way into the 1970’s.
Initially, zinc and later galvanized metal, is used for the washing surface. The Flyer Brass board in our collection was marketed as an upgrade to those metals as brass did not rust and was thought to be more durable than galvanized. Because of shortages encountered during World War II the washing surface was changed to wood or glass. The National Washboard on loan to the museum, with its wooden wash surface, was probably made during the war. The small glass washboard on display was most likely a child’s unit.
In 1874, building on his successful patent of the washboards, James King applies for a patent on a “washing machine.” Like the washing machine on display in the museum, King’s design allows for a scrubbing unit to be lifted up while the clothes and soapy water are added to the tub. The scrubbing unit then lowers into a rocking device that allows for agitation of the clothes. The soapy water can then be replaced with clean water for the rinse cycle. An optional wringer assembly attaches to the side of the tub. For its time, it’s a truly remarkable design. The unit in our collection was manufactured by the Geneva Manufacturing Company of Geneva, Ind. In June, 1895 a fire claimed almost all the town’s businesses and the Geneva Manufacturing Company never reopened.
Since the 1980’s, washboards have enjoyed a revival as musical instruments, so much so that companies now specialize in their manufacture. Washboards made in the traditional style sell in the twenty dollar range, but they are also available in “acoustic” and electric versions for several hundred dollars.
Please come by to see this collection of washboards and a very rare washing machine from the late 1800’s. The museum is open 11 a.m. -4 p.m. every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Located at 300 South Bolton, admission and parking are free.