Broom Lore

Brooms have existed since ancient times, when people used handfuls of reeds to clear dirt out of their living spaces. A reference to sweeping can be found in the Bible; in Luke 15:8 it says, "Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?"

Simple round brooms known as besoms have been made in England since Anglo-Saxon times. Built by craftsmen called besom squires, the brooms were made from birch twigs bound to an ash, hazel, or chestnut pole. Early versions sometimes shed twigs on the floor as they swept. Modern besoms are typically bound together with wire and string instead of the traditional willow stems.

Broom making turned a corner in 1797 when a Massachusetts farmer named Levi Dickinson used a variety of sorghum grass (sorghum vulgere) normally used for animal feed to make a broom for his wife. The grass, which came to be known as broomcorn, proved durable and effective for sweeping, and soon Dickinson went into the broom making business, furnishing hundreds of brooms a year to customers across the northeast.

In the early 19th century, broomcorn became a popular crop for farmers to grow alongside their normal staples. The workers who picked the broomcorn were known as "Broomcorn Johnnies." These were often migrants who came through the area in late summer specifically to help with the harvest.

Broom makers' work was aided by the 1810 invention of the foot treadle broom making machine, a wooden device which held the broom handle in place and rotated it as the broom maker bound the broomcorn to it. The machines were built to last; Brian Newton uses a 19th century foot treadle broom machine retrieved from a barn in Camden, Indiana for his work at Broomcorn Johnny's.

The modern flat broom commonly used today was invented by the Shakers, a religious community known for its handicrafts, in the mid-1820s. The flat broom, bound together with wire, was easier to manipulate than a round broom and cleaned a larger area with each sweep.

By the 1830s there were more than 60,000 small broom shops in the United States, and the country had begun exporting brooms to Canada, South America, and Europe. One country the nation did not export to was England, where besom squires united to block the import of American brooms.

With the country's westward expansion came the realization that broomcorn grew better on the frontier than it did back east. The center of the broom making economy shifted as shops opened up throughout the Midwest, some of them growing into factories.

In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allowed brooms made in Mexico to be sold in the States duty-free, and American broom factories began shutting their doors. Today most broomcorn is grown in Mexico, and American broom making operations are few and far between.