The Columbus Washboard Company has the washboard market virtually all to itself. Only two other such businesses in the world exist, and the Columbus Washboard Company is the only washboard-making enterprise based in the U.S.
The business has been around since 1895 when Frederic Martin Sr. started building washboards in his backyard and selling them. In 1998, George K. Richards, president of a Columbus, Ohio-based wholesale-pharmaceutical company, formed a partnership with six friends and bought the business from the great-niece of the original founder. To reduce costs, the company moved from Columbus to Logan, Ohio, but kept the name.
“My friends thought we were crazy,” says Jacqui Barnett, 61, a co-owner who also works as a factory manager.
And for awhile, the friends seemed to be right. “We didn’t do well for the first six years,” Barnett admits. But in 2004, things started to improve. “So far, this year, we’re doing well. We’re very excited and finally showing some type of profit,” says Barnett, who notes that their washboards are in Ace Hardware stores and 240 stores in the Do It Best Corporation.
Still, the demand for washboards isn’t likely to ever replace washing machines, short of an apocalyptic scenario in which electricity disappears. That’s why the company has opened up its factory for tours, bringing in school field trips and tourists.
It’s also being creative when it comes to marketing, touting more than the washboards’ kitsch value. Many of their clients are campers, backpackers and even the Amish, a large group of whom live nearby. The company also has sent more than 4,000 washboard kits to American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing them at cost.
Photo by Columbus Washboard Company.