The South’s Wooden Hammock
A timeless tale of joggling boards
Photography by Robert Clark and Emily Clay
Joggle (v): to shake slightly; to move or cause to move with repeated small bobs or jerks. First known use of “Joggle” — circa 1727
“There was a sleeping porch that looked out over the backyard, and there was a garden,” drawls Sarah Wilson in her endearing South Carolinian accent. “Behind the flower garden was a vegetable garden. You walked down a little pathway and past a cluster of fig trees. And this … is where we kept our joggling board.”
Sarah grew up in Sumter with joggling boards as an integral part of her family’s lifestyle. Joggling boards have occupied a special niche in the lives of Southern families since the 19th century. These “wooden hammocks” provide a tranquil resting bench for family gatherings, an entertaining activity for young couples and a thrilling game for children. Located either on a front porch or in a sprawling backyard, joggling boards enhance the home’s environment as uncommon outdoor furniture, reflecting a unique Southern tradition.
According to legend, the first joggling board appeared in the South during the early 1880s. On Acton Plantation in Sumter County, Mrs. Benjamin Kinloch Huger suffered from a dire case of rheumatism, which forced her to forgo evening carriage rides. As her ailment of rheumatism worsened, she sent a letter of complaint to relatives in Scotland of the Gilmerton family estate where she disclosed her current health failure and lamented her loss of carriage outings. In reply, her relatives sent a drawn model of a joggling board which, they explained, could emulate the bouncing movement of a carriage ride and in turn provide her with small increments of exercise. Delighted with the idea, Mrs. Huger instructed the plantation carpenter to create this wooden contraption. He built the board with local wood of longleaf pine and placed it on the Acton Plantation front porch. Thus, the first joggling board made its debut into Southern society and soon after established itself as a noteworthy staple within Southern culture.
Kirkman Finlay with his daughters, Hattie (Harriott) and Mary Fleming enjoying the joggling board at the Robert Mills House & Garden/Historic Columbia.
The popularity of joggling boards rapidly spread throughout the Lowcountry and became an integral item of outdoor furniture that replaced swings and hammocks. Throughout the centuries, joggling boards have maintained their demand in Southern homes, minus a slight decline after World War II due to increased labor wages and timber supply. Joggling boards either reside on a front porch or in a charming backyard. Depending on the location, the joggling board needs varying wood treatments. Typically, a joggling board boasts a painted deep Charleston green; however, some boards that stay outside year-round are treated yet unfinished. This equips the joggling board to withstand constant exposure to nature’s elements.
The joggling board is comprised of three components –– two rocking holders and one longleaf pine board. The slow growth of longleaf pine trees allow rings over time to grow tighter together, thus creating a heavier and stronger wood. Because the joggling board requires sturdy wood with a certain degree of flexibility, longleaf pine timber is superb material. According to Doug Williams, owner of Spring Hill Woodworking in Chapin, finding an appropriate board creates the biggest challenge while building a joggling board.
“A joggling board is sort of a rocking chair … but also a game,” Doug says. “So the board itself is the most important component. The main traits are size, weight and flexibility.” A typical joggling board is 10 to 20 feet long and 2 to 3 inches thick. “Finding a 20-foot longleaf pine board takes a bit of time as it needs a direct order from a lumber mill. You can’t just pick it up from Lowe’s,” Doug explains.
Sarah Wilson has a beautiful miniature joggling board replica.
Throughout its history, the joggling board has provided versatile services for Southern families. Whether a comfortable bench for a relaxing evening, a lover’s seat for bright-eyed couples or a playground for enthused children, the joggling board enhanced social gatherings. However, families also utilized these boards as cradles for babies. Nurses would jostle on the bendable boards with newborns nestled in their arms. The “joggling” movement would lull their charges into a deep slumber.
Dr. Wilson James McKay, Sarah Wilson’s grandfather, transformed his joggling board into a wooden cradle. “My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister and a carpenter,” tells Sarah. “He made a basket that hooked on the joggling board. He would place the new babies in there and quietly jog them back and forth. The babies would bounce up and down and be pacified.”
Joggling boards also became coined as “courting boards.” Couples would sit on either end of the board and gently bounce up and down. Each “joggle” would bring the pair closer to each other until they sat in an intimate embrace. It gave the young man the thrill of sitting close to his sweetheart and the excuse to wrap his arm around her in order to keep balanced.
“Before automobiles, the young gentlemen and ladies would simply court at home. Couples would sit on the board as if sitting on a swing on the front porch,” Sarah explains.
In an attempt to escape the sticky summer heat, families would sit on joggling boards during the evening to catch a breeze and cool off. Gently jostling on the board with a cold glass of tea provided respite during an age of no air conditioning. This usage of a bench also permeated social gatherings.
Anne Bowie Tew, with her husband William, first experienced a joggling board in adulthood when visiting friends. They realized that it takes a lot of finesse and determination to stay on the board while trying to bounce off your counterpart.
“The joggling board is like a front porch,” tells Kirkman Finlay, member of the South Carolina House and entrepreneur. “It’s a place where a lot of wonderful family memories occur. Right as twilight is falling, you sit on the porch and use your joggling board. Kids and adults spread across it and the entire family has fun. It’s intergenerational.
“Part of the charm of a joggling board is that it’s not the focus of an evening but provides a lot of entertainment,” Kirkman continues.
Joggling boards quickly became a plaything for children throughout the South, creating a wooden playground for adventurous youngsters. Sarah used the childhood board of her father, Shepard Kollock Nash, as an imaginary bakery. “We used to make mud cakes and play bakery, but my mother made us play with Nancy, my younger sister … and I didn’t like playing with her! I didn’t want her playing with my ‘grown-up friends.’ So, I would tell Nancy, ‘Now Nancy, you can play with us. We will make mud cakes as biscuits, and you have to eat them.’ So Nancy would eat the mud cakes and I would go in to tell Mother, ‘Mother! Nancy is eating dirt again!’ Then Nancy got punished for eating mud … Oh I was bad!” reminisces Sarah while laughing.
Bottom: Sarah Wilson grew up in Sumter with joggling boards as an integral part of her family’s lifestyle. Top: When her father, Shepard Kollock Nash, was a young boy, he received a knife as his Christmas present. He immediately went to the family joggling board to carve his name in it. Inevitably, the knife was confiscated, but the family revels in the story and celebrates the family heirloom.
Children also bounce across the wooden board, making the joggling board a “wooden trampoline.” Kids gleefully skip up and down the pliable board or jump in place with a buddy, attempting to knock the other person off. “To ‘joggle’ you have to stand on the board and bounce using your weight strategically to bounce up and down and then suddenly stop in the attempt to catapult the other person off of the bouncing board before they catapult you off,” explains Anne Bowie Tew, who first experienced a joggling board in adulthood. “It takes a lot of finesse and determination and does not necessarily reward the heaviest body weight.”
Kirkman bounced on joggling boards as a child during family gatherings on his great-great-uncle’s front porch each Sunday. According to Kirkman, “You can joggle up and down, but also sideways! My friends and I would get the board going so fast that we could joggle sideways. We got it just right so it wouldn’t topple over … but someone would always get their fingers or toes smashed.”
The joy of “joggling” on a joggling board is not a mere childhood pleasure but transcends into adulthood. An amusing game for an entire crowd, the joggling board is the perfect accompaniment for an oyster roast, crab boil or family cook out. “They make an event a lot more fun and enjoying,” shares Kirkman. “Bouncing up and down on a joggling board while talking to friends … it’s a lot harder to take yourself seriously. I love that it’s impossible to engage in a somber conversation!”
As wives jostle off husbands and daughters defeat fathers in the timeless joggling game, the entire family enjoys a wonderful pastime that elicits laughter for all involved. “It truly provides amusement for everyone to see their father, mother, sister, brother, spouse, friend, uncle or great-aunt squealing and grunting until eliminated,” Anne says with a grin. “As long as Southerners remain on the planet, an appreciation for the absurd, the comic and the dangerous will remain. Joggling boards combine all three in a way that is athletic and amusing for an outdoor picnic or tailgate.”