This month’s laundry-related post is a tad tangential. Why? Sunday, September 8th, is our annual “Happy Birthday Montgomery County!” celebration, and to coordinate (tangentially) with our laundry exhibit we’ve invited a jug band to the party. Members of the Sunshine Skiffle Band will play a set at 3:15, and they’ve promised us a washboard.
Jug band musicians turn everyday household items into musical instruments. Granted, many of those items are no longer quite so “everyday,” but a traditionally-minded band still relies on the washboards, washtubs, vinegar jugs, and other tools that could be found in many 19th century American homes. I won’t attempt to parse the long history of jug band music, which began in the American south and was pioneered by African American musicians, both amateur and professional (here’s a nice overview, or check out this history, including audio, of the Memphis Jug Band). Instead, let’s look at some of the artifacts themselves.
The washboard. Our early 20th century example is made of wood, with galvanized tin ribs, measuring two feet tall. Any labels or markings have long since washed away through use. It was donated by John W. Magruder (1902-1979), who grew up on a farm in Gaithersburg, and served as the Montgomery County Agricultural Extension Agent from 1948 until 1963; unfortunately, we don’t know if this washboard’s history is related to his home or work life.
Original use: Before the agitator washing machine, the laundress had to do the agitating herself in order to work the soap through the cloth; a common method was rubbing fabric vigorously against the ridges of a washboard. (This method is hard on both fabric and hands.).
To play: A percussion instrument. Washboard players achieve a nice rhythmic sound by rubbing their hands, or another tool, up and down the ribs. Different materials (washboards can be made of metal, glass, or plastic) produce different sounds. This instrument is popular in Zydeco bands as well as jug bands.
The washtub. This circa 1910 tub is made of galvanized tin, and stands 11 inches tall. The manufacturer’s paper label is water damaged – like the washboard above, it’s a well-used piece – and now illegible. The tub was donated by Katherine Poole, and was likely used at Poole family homes in Washington, DC or Rockville.
Original use: Laundry day required multiple tubs, for soaking, rinsing, and bluing clothes and linens. A metal tub like this one was an improvement over the old wooden tubs, which didn’t last very long, and could give an unwary laundress splinters. Even better were tubs that were built with legs, reducing strain on the back.
To play: With a few additions, a tub becomes the string section of a jug band. You need an upside down metal tub, an upright broomstick, and a taut wire stretched between them that can be plucked like a guitar string. Moving the broomstick varies the tension on the wire, and thus the note achieved.
The jug. A mid-late 19th century stoneware jug, with no maker’s marks or other identifications, 11 inches tall. Donated by Charles T. Jacobs, it was likely used by one the many local branches of the Waters and Jacobs families.
Original use: Stoneware jugs of various sizes and shapes were indispensable in the 19th century kitchen. Usually locally made, and reused over and over again, jugs held water, vinegar, cider, or any other frequently used liquid.
To play: The jug is essentially the brass section, and is played like a trumpet or tuba – you blow across the top, using changes in the position of lips and mouth to affect the pitch and tone of the resulting notes. (I say that like I can do it; I cannot.) There’s no jug band without a jug… because then it’s called a skiffle band instead.
All three of these pieces can be seen (but not played, sorry) in the Beall-Dawson House – the washboard and tub as part of the laundry exhibit, and the jug (along with some friends) in the “Old Kitchen.” Other common jug or skiffle band instruments can be found in our collections, and probably yours as well: spoons, combs, buckets, bottles… Try your own internet search for “how to make jug band instruments” for instructions ranging from toddler- to adult-appropriate, then take a look around your house with new, instrument-seeking eyes! (But don’t break anything.)
Oh, and be sure to visit us this Sunday from 2-5 at “Happy Birthday Montgomery County!” As always, the party is free. In addition to the fabulous music, we’ll have children’s activities and crafts; a presentation on the Monocacy Cemetery at 2:15; birthday cake at 4:30; and, throughout the event, a chance to tour our museums, check out our exhibits, talk to reenactors, and learn about local historical and cultural organizations. A good time will be had by all.