Facts That Figure: Brooms

Facts That Figure: Brooms

By: C.G. Hoffman

From the plethora of gadgets that are available today, from robot vacuums and mops, to steam cleaners and electric mops, it would seem as if cleaning should be an effortless job today, done from the comfort of your own couch. But no matter how hi-tech and cutting edge the most sophisticated homes may be, every home, from the humble to the palatial, still contains that oldest and most low-tech of cleaning tools: the broom.

A broom is a bundle of stiff fibers or twigs attached to a central support. The word besom, familiar to Yiddish speakers, is reserved for the more traditional rounded style of twigs or fibers tied around a stick.

The broom tree, whose wood burns longer than other trees and is common to Eretz Yisrael, is called גַּחֲלֵי רְתָמִים in the Torah. Hagar abandoned Yishmael under a broom tree, and Eliyahu Hanavi sought refuge under one when he was escaping for his life.

African housewives have been using the same kind of broom for thousands of years; a bundle of twigs or palm fronds are tied together and used to sweep the dust and sand out of the house, especially important in desert climates.

The first time the concept of witches flying on brooms is mentioned, is in 1453, when a priest, Guillaume Edelin “confessed” to being a witch and using a broom to fly to witches’ conferences.

When we were growing up, my father used to tease us girls when we got too loud that we yakked like “brush-binders.” In the villages of Europe, older illiterate women would get together and make a few pennies doing the kind of work that didn’t require too much skill or strength: binding straw for brooms and brushes. When a circle of women sit together all day… Oy! The Lashon Hora!

Lucky Mrs. Dickinson! In 1797, her husband, Levi Dickinson wanted to give her a present that no one else had. He fashioned a broom made out of sorghum grass, a plant similar to corn. Mrs. Dickinson was so proud of her new broom, that she showed it off to the neighbors, and soon everyone wanted one! The new broom was stronger and more durable than others in use, and demand rose for the new broom. By 1800 Dickinson and his sons were making a few hundred brooms a year and outfitting homes throughout the Northeastern USA with his new brooms.

By the mid 1800s, machines were churning out brooms by the thousands, and hand tied brooms became a thing of the past. Besides for machines replacing human labor, the only great innovation in broom making for thousands of years was made by the Shakers, a Christian sect, in the 1800s. They had the genius idea of securing the broomcorn with a wire, then flattening it before sewing it tightly and attaching it to a handle, thus creating the flat broom. The new design was much more efficient at sweeping out a room, and the design hasn’t changed much to this very day.

The rise of synthetics and plastics made the old fiber brooms give way to plastic extruded broom bristles in the 1950s. Even though almost every household has a vacuum cleaner, the broom is still the quickest and most efficient way to get a kitchen floor clean.

Is the source of the custom of the “mezhinke” dance at weddings a Jewish one? Some have a minhag of dancing with a broom at the wedding of the “mezhinkele,” the youngest child. The mother of the child dances with the broom as if she is “sweeping out the house” by marrying off her youngest child. Trouble is, no one seems to know where this minhag comes from! Some even hold that it’s assur due to חקת הגוים. If any of our readers know of a mekor, let us know!

photos: Shutterstock

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