SWOOSH, SWISH, SWOOSH … Sound familiar? There isn’t a more universal domestic tool in the world than a broom. Used in cottages, castles, campsites and condos, the humble broom has done its job for centuries. In fact, the broom is so important to our daily lives that it intertwines with our cultures, beliefs and entertainment.
The fall season may conjure images of little broom-bearing witches roaming neighborhoods in search of candy, but brooms make plenty of appearances outside of Halloween too. We bring brooms to sports stadiums hoping our favorite team makes a “clean sweep” over our opponents. And how could Harry Potter and his classmates play Quidditch without flying on their broomsticks?
The African-American custom of jumping over a broomstick at the end of a marriage ceremony has gained renewed interest, even in pop culture: In 2011’s “Jumping the Broom,” an engaged couple played by Paula Patton and Laz Alonso argues about whether they want to jump the broom or create a new tradition for their own wedding. And a 2013 episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” features characters Ben Warren and Miranda Bailey jumping the broom at the end of their wedding ceremony. The custom can be traced to Southern slaves who, in the 1840s and ’50s were not permitted to marry. Either jumping together or separately, the custom symbolized the union between the couple.
Until modern times, the broom was made from 100 percent plant material, much of which came from native plants. Non-native broomcorn (Sorghum spp.), however, is currently considered by many to be the best fiber for making the “head” or “sweep” of the broom. It originated in Central Africa, and Ben Franklin often gets credit for introducing and distributing it in this country in the 1750s, according to Arkansas broomsquire Shawn Hoefer.
But broomcorn isn’t the only plant that has been used to make broom heads in the United States. Native plants include beargrass (Xerophyllum spp.) and panic grass (Panicum spp.). And some Pueblo Native Americans used sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), the state grass of Texas, to sweep their homes.
“During the Depression, homesteaders also harvested broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) for house brooms and to tidy their yards, which were free of grass then. They would lay bundles up in the attic and as the brooms wore out, they picked up another,” says Hoefer. “It served a dual purpose. They started putting the bundles inside in October and were actually insulating their houses. By the time spring came along, the amount of insulation went down. It was genius.”
Native plants still play an important part in American broom making. Like those on early American brooms, the handles on today’s beautiful craft brooms are frequently made from native wood. Hoefer, who teaches broom making at Ozark Folk Center Sate Park and guarantees his broom handles for 15 years, favors sassafras (Sassafras albidum) because it’s a lightweight but sturdy wood that grows relatively straight.
“But I love the fact that the Ozarks have a variety of trees, so I use hickory, oak, maple, sycamore and hawthorn — all hardwoods. No pine, that just rots,” says Hoefer, who is also an award-winning broom artist. “One benefit of using all-natural wood handles, he notes, is that “there is no way you are ever going to get two identical brooms. Each is unique.”
Ron Cox is a broom maker who’s been making 1800s-style brooms since 2000. He’s also run a small shop in Fort Davis, Texas, since 2005. Now in his late 70s, Cox still makes 5,000 to 7,000 brooms a year — by himself.
“Sometimes I work from sunup to sundown,” said Cox, who owns Davis Mountain Broom Co. (His specialty brooms are also sold by No. 4 St. James, a web-based Texas lifestyle store.) “I use cholla cactus, yucca, mesquite, white oak and pecan. I use whatever makes a good broom and what I can lay my hands on,” he says. “A friend in the eastern United States brings me a bunch of eastern cedar (Juniperus virginiana) for handles every year. He gets to go home with a lot of cholla.”
Cox’s favorite style of broom is his kitchen broom, but he also makes what he calls “fancy brooms” that sell for between $200 and $300. (For a primer on broom types, see below.)
“I don’t ever want to completely stop making brooms,” says Cox, who now keeps irregular hours at his workshop. “I like it best when little children come in. Most of them don’t know that a person can make a broom by hand.”
Today’s rooster tail brooms (top) are based on the beautiful brooms used in the 1920s by ushers in auditoriums and music halls. The long handle was designed to fit in an usher’s back pocket. Audience seats were whisked clean to prevent soiling beautiful gowns and to give them that “never sat in” look.
Some home bakers like to hang a cake tester broom (middle left) on a wall in their kitchen. Simply pluck off a straw and insert into a cake or cupcakes. If the straw comes out clean, the cake is baked to perfection. Pot scrubbers (middle right) are enjoying a comeback and can be purchased in some gourmet kitchenware shops. Usually about 4 inches long, the pot scrubber cleans its namesake as well as cast iron skillets and crock pots. Throw the tiny broom into a backpack, and you’ll have a tool to wash dishes and utensils while hiking or camping. Hang up to dry after use.
Traditionally, riverboat whisks (bottom) were not made from broomcorn but rope (usually fiber from non-native Agave sisalana), a common commodity for people living along a waterway. A simple-to-make broom (usually just doubled over, knotted rope), it serves as a handy dusting whisk.
Jill Sell is a regular contributor to Wildflower magazine.