You see it every day at home, every day at work. It is a commonplace tool, so commonplace that I usually do not give it much thought, yet it is nearly indispensable. It is the broom. A great deal of ingenuity and effort went into the creation of this important tool. Today, we will learn a brief history of its development.

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The standard flat broom. Sleek and efficient when compared to its predecessors. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by User:Mauzile. CC BY-SA 4.0.

You notice how the classic images of a witch’s broom show a broom with a round brush? Yet now, brooms usually have a flat brush. When, and why, did that change happen?

Brooms are a millennia-old technology, we don’t know when people first started using them. In China, documentation of brooms date back thousands of years, as do references to brooms in the Middle East. Usually, you and your family would make brooms as needed. Tie some grass or twigs to the end of a stick and you are ready to start cleaning up a mess. Making brooms was a regular chore since brooms quickly broke. As people cleaned with brooms, though, they looked for ways to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of brooms. In the 18th, broom-making became a profession in England, a tradition that spread to the American colonies. And then, in the late 18th century, two major improvements to the broom made it work much better and last much longer.

The first improvement was the discovery in 1797 that the stiff tassels of sorghum grass made a very useful broom fiber. Levi Dickinson of Hadley, Massachusetts, is credited with this find, and sorghum grass, previously used only as animal feed, came to be known as broom corn. By 1800, Dickinson and his sons were selling hundreds of brooms

The very next year after Dickinson’s discovery, Theodore Bates, a Shaker living at the Watervliet, New York commune studied the new sorghum brooms and realized that they would have a much more efficient sweeping surface if the brush was flat instead of rounded. He invented a vice that would flatten out the fibers, which could then secured by a broom-maker if they sewed the fibers together with heavy twine. Other improvements from the Shakers would soon follow: Securing the fibers to the handle with metal wire instead of string; invention of treadle machinery to wind broom corn fibers around the handle; invention of a smaller, companion version of the broom – the whisk broom or duster – to brush up small piles.

Broom manufacture quickly became a major industry for the United States, particularly in the Northeast. Millions of brooms would be made a year during the 19th century. Not much in broom design has changed much since those inventions by Levi Dickinson and Theodore Bates. Now, your broom might be made of plastic or other synthetic materials, instead of flattened plant fibers. But the basic shape and design has not changed.

References

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