Although the washboard was initially designed for washing clothes, it soon became utilized as a musical instrument. While historical evidence concerning the washboard is somewhat sketchy, the resourcefulness of impoverished musicians in making it into a musical instrument is both fascinating and ingenious.
A washboard is a flat board with a ribbed surface. According to OldandInteresting.com, historians believe that washboards originated in Scandinavia just prior to the turn of the 19th century, but documented date information is woefully lacking. Originally made entirely of wood at the beginning of the 19th century, they were placed in a washtub and used to scrub dirty clothing. The wooden ribs were eventually replaced with galvanized metal, which was easier to make and lasted longer. Today's electric washing machines have an agitator that performs the work of the washboard. During the second World War, when metal was scarce, glass washboards became extremely popular. This popularity died out when metal's availability returned.
The only remaining washboard manufacturer in the United States is the Columbus Washboard Co., which has been making washboards since 1895. People use washboards today for decorative purposes, crafts, furniture and musical instruments. Of course some people--including campers, historical re-enactors and members of the Amish community--continue to use washboards for laundry.
Jug bands, which commonly used washboards, became popular in the 1920s. The washboard is currently used by performers of zydeco, jazz, jug bands and various forms of folk music, including old time and skiffle. When the wood frame is missing and only the metal portion of the washboard is used, the instrument is called a frottoir (in the language of the Cajuns) or rubboard. Interestingly, frottoirs tend to be much more expensive than washboards.
To play a washboard, the player wears metal thimbles on several fingers and rubs these fingers rhythmically across the ribbed surface of the instrument, which is typically worn around the neck. Some players use bottle openers or guitar picks instead of thimbles. The frottoir is worn over the shoulders of the player, like a breastplate.
Along with the washboard, financially challenged musicians in the American South fashioned improvised musical instruments from cigar boxes, spoons, moonshine jugs, hair combs and washtubs. One of the most fascinating facts about these "poor man's" instruments is that, while they were initially created due to the musicians' lack of finances to purchase real musical instruments, such creations made today are often far more expensive than the genuine articles.