Broomcorn and Broom Making
Nature Bulletin No. 685 Septe4mber 15, 1962
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
BROOMCORN AND BROOM MAKING
in the late 1700's, Benjamin Franklin found a small seed on a
whisk broom that a friend had brought him from France for dusting his
beaver hat. Next spring he planted that seed and it grew into a tall corn-
like plant with a flowering brush of stiff fibers bearing seeds.
these more were grown for several years as a garden novelty in
Philadelphia. Then, in 1797, a man in Massachusetts who had planted a
half acre of it began to make and peddle crude brooms. Broomcorn
raising and broom making soon grew into an important industry with
skilled workmen producing a greatly improved product. After that, for
more than a century, a good broom was one of the American
housewife's most prized possessions. No other fiber equals broom-corn
for picking up dust and sweeping.
is one of the sorghums. Unlike other sorghums which are
grown for grain, for fodder, or for making molasses, broomcorn's only
use is for brooms and brushes. It has been cultivated in Asia and Africa
since ancient times.
In the United States the main broomcorn-growing regions have slowly
shifted westward and are now in Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico
and Texas. For years, east-central Illinois was the largest producer with
60,000 acres under cultivation in 1935. At present, only a small acreage
is grown but it yields most of the seed planted in other states. Illinois is
still a center for broom factories and broomcorn dealers with large
plants in several downstate cities and Chicago.
corn is planted in rows and cultivated like ordinary field corn.
One of two principal varieties grown is called 'standard and is usually
10 or 12 feet in height. The "dwarf" variety, grown only in the western
states, is about half as tall. Both kinds bear a brush of a few dozen
fibers up to two feet in length.
Harvesting the crop and preparing it for the broom maker require a
great deal of hand labor. It is harvested before the seed matures --
before the fiber becomes brittle. First, a man walks backward between
two rows and breaks over the stalks, crisscross, to form what is known
as a "table". Next, each brush is cut off just below the crown and piled
in handfuls on this table. These are hauled to a machine with whirling,
spiked cylinders which knocks off the seed. Then the brush is spread on
racks in a drying shed where, after curing for two or three weeks, it is
compressed into bales weighing 350 to 450 pounds. All this must be
done carefully to yield good, untangled fiber for use in brooms.
At the factory broomcorn is sorted according to length, color (green is
preferred), fineness, and straightness of the fiber. A broom is built up
on a winding machine that slowly turns its wooden handle as the brush
is added, layer by layer, and bound tight by a wire under tension. After
two or three layers of shorter, coarser fibers, the shoulders of the broom
are formed by adding brush to opposite sides. Next comes a layer of
longer brush, called hurl, pointing the other way. This is folded down
over the growing broom, followed by a final covering of hurl.
Another machine clamps the broom in a vise and binds it firmly into
shape with four or five lines of stitching of stout twine. Formerly, this
was done by a craftsman using an 8-inch, double-pointed needle, with
an eye in the center, which he pushed back and forth with a thimble
mounted on a leather cuff in the palm of each hand.
Woe to the man that missed the thimble -- he carried scars !
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Update: June 2012