ISSUE 42  |  Dark Shadows

Object Lessons: The Autumnal Broom

October 24, 2016 8:00 AM

BY Megan Wilson

The broom, enemy of spiders and friend to witches, has been aiding household cleaning since the dawn of domestic history. Initially made of anything on hand, from reeds to corn husks, the broom as we know it has evolved thanks to the early Anglo-Saxons, who turned the craft into an organized trade. Besom squires, as these tradesmen were known, gathered the brushlike twigs of birch trees and bound them with willow wisps around a thicker tree branch, often made of hazel. This gave us the broom associated with witches, complete with crooked stick and untrimmed dark twigs.

The modern straw broom emerged in Massachusetts at the end of the 18th century with the discovery of sorghum grass, a local crop previously grown exclusively for animal feed. Long and strong, sorghum was soft enough to be trimmed to a uniform length, which made it perfectly suited for sweeping up fine particles of dust. About 30 years later, the Shakers, with their ever-inquiring minds, took the broom and improved its efficiency by flattening the broomcorn (as the grass became known) to give a wider and more precise sweep. All three styles have their uses today: the besom is preferred for outdoors; the round and flat brooms for indoors. In recent decades, the rise of synthetics put the broom industry into a sharp decline. But of late, the artisanal broom, particularly the Shaker version, has been muscling its way back into our broom closets; here are some notable examples.

Five to Buy

Lostine Barn Brooms

Above: These three corn husk Barn Brooms, in black, “tipped,” and natural, are made in Pennsylvania by Lostine; $60 each from Lostine.

Berea College Crafts Broom

Above: The students at Berea College Crafts, in Kentucky, are trained in Appalachian arts, including broom making; the school doesn’t charge tuition and is funded by sales of its creations. The Cottage Broom is available from Berea College for $43.

Brenwood Forage Cobwebber Broom

Above: With its untrimmed ends, the Cobwebber (an unwelcome sight for Charlotte, the spider) is most similar to the besom-style broom. These are $29 each at Brenwood Forge & Brooms, in West Virginia.

Chinese Broom from Objects of Use

Above: The Chinese Bamboo Outdoor Broom is made in the Shaker style of whole and split bamboo; £18.50 ($22.50 USD) at Objects of Use in the UK. The broom is currently out of stock but contact Objects of Use for restocking information.

Haydenville Broomworks Broom

Above: The Shaker Broom has a broomcorn head and a pine handle; $40 from Haydenville Broomworks, in Massachusetts.

Object Lessons columnist Megan Wilson is the owner of Ancient Industries and the curator of the Remodelista 100, a collection of everyday essential objects presented in the Remodelista book. Watch for her column every Tuesday, and have a look at her past lessons on iconic designs, including the Humble Cotton Cleaning Cloth.

N.B.: This post is an update; the original story ran on October 21, 2014.