Investors Rescue America’s Last Washboard Maker

on December 19, 2004

In 1999, America’s only remaining washboard manufacturer, the Columbus Washboard Co., was preparing to shut its doors after 104 years in business. That is, until a group of investors stepped in to save it.

“It was a nostalgia thing for us right away,” says Jacqui Barnett of Logan, Ohio (pop. 6,704). Barnett, along with her husband, Bevan, and four other investors, decided that rather than see the company close, they would purchase it. “We all thought it was worth a try, especially since it’s such a part of history,” she says.

The company’s history dates back to 1895, when Frederic Martin Sr. of Columbus, Ohio, started building washboards in his backyard to sell. It’s estimated that fewer than 1,000 washboards were produced and sold in any of the first 30 years of operation. During World War II, sales skyrocketed, with the company selling more than 1 million washboards in 1941. However, with advances in automated washing machines in the late 1960s, demand began to dwindle. By the late 1990s, after remaining in the family for three generations, interest in keeping the family business alive was gone.

For Barnett, the timing was perfect. Tired of her job as a seamstress, the New Zealand native was searching for a career change. The Barnetts, along with friend George K. Richards in Columbus and members of his family, purchased the company, naming Jacqui the managing partner. To make the company more financially viable and bring it closer to their home, the Barnetts moved the Columbus Washboard Co.’s antique machinery 65 miles south to the town of Logan.

Today, Barnett and four other employees make the washboards by hand in an 11,000-square-foot factory, where visitors are always welcome to tour.

“It makes you feel good when people come in and they are really interested in what you’re doing,” says Betty Ellinger, a floor supervisor who can assemble a washboard in 45 seconds.

The washboards, which sell for $14 to $24, are produced in varying sizes with rubbing surfaces that include galvanized steel, stainless steel, brass and glass. Galvanized metal is the original choice, with a wavy crimp designed to keep the soap on the board so it doesn’t run down into the water. A coarse, spiral crimp surface is used for tougher pieces such as socks and pants, while a rounded, smoother area is best for washing delicates.

Barnett markets the washboards not only for washing clothes but also as a decorative piece in the home, and as a percussion instrument for a growing number of washboard musicians, who play the board using thimbles or wooden spoons. As a tool for washing clothes, the washboards are popular in the Amish and Mennonite communities and more recently with troops stationed overseas.

Since March 2003, the company has sent 3,000 washboards—all at a break-even price—to American soldiers in Iraq, who often don’t have access to washing machines.

“The idea began with a request for a washboard from a soldier from Marysville, Ohio,” Barnett says. “His mother had used our washboards, and he was familiar with us. After that, it was word-of-mouth, and we put it on our website and got many other requests from wives of soldiers and support groups.” Barnett even sends washing kits that include a tub, clothesline, clothespins, soap, foot powder and washboard instructions.

Last year, the company sold 35,000 washboards nationwide, with about 40 percent of those being used to wash clothes. But for Barnett, it’s not about getting rich selling washboards; instead it’s the pride associated with keeping a piece of history alive.

“If there wasn’t the pride, there wouldn’t be the company,” she says. “It’s a working museum, and if we don’t stay enthusiastic about it, it will die.”

Found in: Traditions