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The Broom

Updated on August 31, 2009

Before the vacuum cleaner

The broom, like paper, the clarinet reed and the pen, takes its name from the material from which it was made. In the same way calamus meant both a cane and the pen which was made from it; again, the Italian word for reed, calamo, and the word for magnet, calamita, recall that the primitive mariner's compass consisted of a magnetized needle inserted through a straw and floated on a basin of water.

Nowadays the flexible twigs of the wild broom (Sarothamnus scoparius) are no longer used for making either house brooms or besoms. For besoms twigs of birch or heather are now preferred. One of the last uses of broom branches for sweeping was in clearing the ice in the old Scottish sport of curling.

The manufacture of coarse brooms or besoms is one of the most thriving of the old English woodland crafts, for these besoms are required not only for sweeping roads and gardens and for use as fire-beaters, but also for brushing the slag from the surface of hot pig-iron fresh from the furnace. The foundries of the Midlands and South Wales make a steady demand for birch besoms for this last purpose, wire brushes not being so satisfactory. The principal places where the craft is still carried on are the open heathy wastes, the home of the 'broom Squires', near Hindhead (Surrey) and in Ashdown Forest (Kent), at Verwood in East Dorset and Redlynch in Wiltshire, at Baughurst and Tadley in Hampshire, at Hevingham near Norwich, and at Pickering in the North Riding of Yorkshire, where heather brooms are a speciality.

In making birch besoms, the twigs are cut in winter and seasoned for several months. They are then bound in bundles, a process which requires much skill and is crucial in determining the quality of the broom. Devices of many kinds are used for tightening the bundle while binding, and their variety illustrates the vigor of local traditions of craftsmanship. The Suffolk woodman simply tightens the binding strip by rolling and straining the bundle under his feet. In the New Forest the same method is used, but before binding and inserting the handle the twigs are boiled for about five minutes to make them moist and soft. In Hampshire and Durham the binder sits astride a 'horse', a sort of vice which grips the binding lap and tightens it at each turn with a foot treadle; in the Surrey workshops there is no treadle, and pressure on the 'saddle' gives the necessary tension. In Norfolk the binder sits astride a sloping plank and has a rope tied round his waist, which is given a turn round the bundle and then looped to a hook at the end of the plank; he slides up the plank on a sack, and the weight of his body strains the bundle tight. At Pickering in Yorkshire and Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, however, instead of straining the binding lap, a pincer vice operated with a pedal is used to compress the heather bundle, which is then fastened with the lap threaded through a large iron 'needle'.

For economy, the twig bundles in some workshops are now bound with imported cane, or even with wire, but these are never as satisfactory as the traditional materials - laps of ash wood split from a green bough, thin cleft stems of oak or sweet chestnut, the fibrous interior bark of lime, the core of brambles, or twisted hazel withies. Finally, the twigs are trimmed and a handle, usually of lime or hazel, inserted into them.

In Anglesey a cheap type of broom was made from the reed, cut by a scythe in August and left in the open to dry and become crisp before being bound.

Though alder and birch will serve, the heads of the best modern domestic brooms are made of half-cylinders of turned blocks of beech, since this wood can be bored with the many holes necessary for taking the bristles without danger of splitting. There is an inner layer of beech, and a final veneer which may be made of any ornamental wood from pale horse chestnut to dark ebony, but the strength lies in the beech core. Nowadays these brooms are usually set with imported piassava fibre, which is cheaper than the fine twigs or spray of many kinds of willow which, stripped of their bark, were formerly used for this purpose.

The old-fashioned broom was associated with witches as the vehicle which they straddled when floating through the air, with the aid of 'flying ointment', to their unholy sabbats, and as the emblem which they wielded in their dances. This is a fairly recent association, since the earliest references to the flight of witches are in the sixteenth century, and at first their means of transport on these occasions was represented as sticks, not brooms. However, the broom was a powerful plant used by witches and against witches.

Hazel wood is also a traditional material for the magic wand, and broom handles are often made of hazel, and witches' brooms were often specially described as being made of hazel. So for this reason as well the broom may have been considered a suitable witches' adjunct.

The broom was a common symbol in mumming plays and ceremonies. Varro, in a passage preserved by St Augustine, describes a rural custom of ancient Italy which took place on the birth of a child. In order to keep the wild Silvanus at bay, three spirits were invoked, Intercidona, Pilumnus and Deverra, represented by three men with the axe, pestle and broom. These symbolized the basic agricultural tasks of pruning the trees, pounding the corn, and sweeping the grain. In Yorkshire and Lancashire, the mummers on New Year's Eve enter the house with a broom, to 'sweep out the old year'. Molly, the man dressed as a woman who acts as chorus in the Berkshire and Oxfordshire Christmas mumming play, carries a broom, as does 'Bessie with a besom' of the Roxburghshire Christmas mummers. In these cases it is probably a sign of femininity, for the broomstick was the traditional symbol of women, as the pitchfork was of men; when placed outside the door it showed that the woman of the house was not in.

To hoist a broom to the top-mast head of a ship used to be a sign that it was to be sold. The origin of this custom is not recorded, though it has been compared with instances where the display of a bush or bough indicated an impending sale. Broom and brush were first mechanized as carpet-sweepers in the middle of the last century, the carpet-sweeper evolving into the vacuum cleaner.

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