Full Circle: What did we do before thorny shrubs?

Published 5:39 am Saturday, January 25, 2020

Has this ever happened to you? You are watching a movie set back in the middle ages where a woman (always a woman!) is sweeping out her dark and dingy home. Or worse yet she is sweeping the entire courtyard surrounding her dark and dingy home. She is bent over at a ninety-degree angle.

Have you ever stopped to look at her? To really look at her? Why in the world is she all bent over? Were all sticks in the middle ages only fifteen inches long? Did no tree ever grow branches to the height of a woman’s shoulders?

Why, oh, why did it take thousands of years for someone to make a long handled broom? And why even today is a long handled broom not used all over the world?

Email newsletter signup

In this column we are going to explore the history of the broom. Trust me, it is so much more than a thing for a witch to ride. The word comes from old Anglo-Saxon England and originally meant “thorny shrubs.” (Guess it’s a good thing it was changed to “broom,” because what housewife wants to have a thorny shrubs closet in her home?)

There is no exact date that tells us of the broom’s invention. It no doubt happened when one day a despairing-but-brainiac housewife finally got fed up to the gills with using her hands to clean the ashes and embers from around the family’s fire. In a moment of clarity she grabbed a bundle of twigs and lashed them to a stick. Kaboom! The broom!

Many hundreds of years later, in 1797, a Massachusett’s farmer named Levi Dickinson got an idea. Why not thrill his wife — the bent over love of his life — with a tool with which she could work even harder … and faster? And with that inspiration, the thoughtful romantic made her a broom with a long handle. (This would be akin to rather than the little woman on Mother’s Day getting breakfast served in bed followed by a day full of chocolates and roses, she gets a chainsaw!)

The good news is that by the 1800s, Dickinson was selling hundreds of brooms. Seems every Don Juan wanted his wife to work harder and faster! With a bunch of twigs tied onto a long stick, the modern age of housecleaning was born.

Then in the early 19th Century, the Shakers stepped up to the plate and joined the broom brigade. Who knows what the inspiration for their inventiveness was, but as they believed in Christ’s Second Coming, perhaps they decided it was time for them to prepare in case that time was right around the corner. You know, get the place shaped up. With that urgency being the mother of invention, the flat broom was created. This wonder of design swept a much wider swath, making (alas) the forbearing housewives’ work a tad easier while building up their upper arm strength.

By 1839, the United States had 303 broom factories. Eleven years later, in 1850, about one million brooms were produced each year in the United States. By 1919, the number of broom factories had grown to 1,039. (Can’t you just picture it … with a broom-in-every-room, American housewives were blissfully lolly gagging their way through their daily clean up chores. Swish …. swish….and their job was done.)

But, things did not stop there. Brooms continued to evolve from being a bundle of sticks tied to a tubular stick, to small dusters known as whisk brooms (I’m guessing the name came from the “whisk” sound they made), to the Shaker’s flat broom. Then in a bold stroke of efficiency, the push broom was designed for larger spaces.

What begs the question, though, is this: Why didn’t someone also make a dustpan with a long handle??? Aarrggh!

Because of the abundance of corn grown in its fields, Oklahoma became the heart of the broom making industry. Then in a twist of fate, the Great Depression hit, causing a huge decline in the demand for brooms. Why, you ask? I can only speculate that a whole lot of extra depression was added to that already Great Depression because people’s houses went unswept … because of the shortage of brooms! Who wouldn’t be a disheartened Debbie Downer if you lived in a dirty house? Lamentably, only a few broom manufacturers survived during this dusty time.

Amazingly, down through the ages the broom has swept out caves, cottages, castles and now condominiums. Furthermore, the best thing that can be said about its evolution is that it doesn’t need more evolving. It’s pretty darned good just as it has been since 1797.

Think about the wonder of it. What item can you think of that was used by the cavewoman and is still used today by the condomiumwoman? Hurray for the broom! It has it all—the ability to clean in and under small spaces … including corners … it is affordable for everyone, it doesn’t require gas, electricity or batteries, it lasts for eons, and it can be easily stored in its own thorny shrubs closet.