A Clean Sweep

October 12, 2019

Several weeks ago, Finders Keepers donated this two piece broom making system to the museum.

 

  The “kicker” on the left was a wrapping device and the “sewing vise” on the right was how the hand sewing process was performed.  I knew that brooms had a long history of use by humans and some engaging folklore, but other than that, I knew very little and so decided in might make an interesting column.

 

Originally, brooms were called besoms and were made of small twigs bound to a well smoothed small tree branch.  Besoms disappear in this country right around 1800.  The term “broom” actually referred to the small yellow-flowering shrub that was originally used to craft the broom. (oldandinteresting.com)  Sometimes brooms would be made of birch or heather.  Brooms date back for millenniums and were used to sweep caves, dwellings and castles, and even to clear away debris from the path of the noble classes.

Before 1797, brooms in America were home and hand-made, using unrefined fibrous materials such as grass, straw, hay or other materials such as fine twigs or corn husks.  (Refined fibers were used to make cloth for linens and clothing.)  These unrefined “round” brooms were used to sweep home and hearth, but fell apart after a short time, even though strong linen twine was often used.   

 

In 1797, Levi Dickenson of Hadley, Massachusetts, improved the sweeping quality of brooms when he crafted a broom for his wife, using the tassels of a variety of sorghum (Sorghum vulgere), a grain he was growing for the seeds. Word spread from community to community and an industry was born. In 1810 the foot-treadle broom machine was invented, playing an integral part in the Industrial Revolution. About that same time, the sorghum used in brooms, had acquired a new name, Broom Corn, as the British called all seed bearing plants, "corn." The sorghum also looks similar to the sweet corn plant, and its tassel had become the broom material still used in quality brooms today. (broomshop.com)

 

In the 1800s, a special version of plant, the broomcorn, was grown especially to make brooms. Broomcorn is not a type of corn at all, rather, it is a member of the sorghum plant family. Farmers grew broomcorn and sold it to factories, as a way to make some extra money. The harvesting took place in the fall, along with their other crops.  Broomcorn is comparable to spaghetti as it breaks easily when dry but is very supple when wet.  In order to bend the fiber to be bound to a handle, one end of the broomcorn is soaked in a bucket of water until supple.  It was then taken to the “kicker” to be bound onto the handle.

 

 

The kicker, as seen to the left, would rotate twine or a piano-like wire around

 

the broomcorn.  This process was done from three to five layers.  Once the broomcorn was firmly bound, the sticks would be hung to dry to avoid mildew. After drying, the broom would be placed into the sewing vise, as seen to the right, to create either the round or flat broom.  Flat brooms were designed in the 1820s by the Shakers religious order.  The finishing step would be the cutter to create an even, smooth finish of the broomcorn.

 

 

Round brooms were used for laundry, cake-testing, and hearth work and required fewer broomcorn.  Sweeping the hearth is familiar for most people.  The laundry broom would be used to sprinkle water on fabrics prior to ironing.  The cake-testing…well, just like we continue to do with our wire testers – test the doneness of the batter.   and were shorter in length. 

 

 

We have a round broom on exhibit and if you look at the photograph, you will see the round shape of the binding and bend at the handle junction as well as the round shape where sewn.  The density of the broom and its flexibility made it ideal for sweeping smooth floors and hearths.  House, children’s and whisk brooms were denser and flattened in the vise to flatten them.  While held in the vise, the broomcorn would be hand-sewn to retain its flattened state. 

 

By about 1830, there were enough small (one or two man) broom shops in the country that 60,000 brooms were being annually, putting the United States into the export business.  Brooms were exported to Canada, South American and Europe; with the exception of England.  Through their parliamentary representatives, their manufacturers obtained an embargo against imported brooms from the United States.  (Living History Farms) Artisanal broom-making had begun in Anglo-Saxon England and continued well into the 19th Century.  These brooms were made from twigs from birth trees. 

 

As America expanded west-ward it became evident that broomcorn grew really well in the mid-west.   Broom shops expanded to the western towns and frontier.  Tens of thousands of acres of broomcorn was harvested annually. The broom industry grew as tens of thousands of acres of broomcorn was grown annually. Some of these shops became factories, making hundreds of brooms a day, for a growing nation.  Our broom making equipment, technology and the use of broomcorn can now be found worldwide.

 

The American broom industry flourished until 1994 with the advent of NAFTA (U.S., Canada and Mexico) when foreign brooms were permitted into the U.S., duty free. This Treaty killed off the small broom factories throughout the United States.  Individual broom makers continue to make a few thousand premium quality brooms each year and continue to share their histories and lore.

 

 

Resources

BrenWood Forge & Brooms

Living History Farms

Old & Interesting

Warren Olney, The Broom Man

 

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