A broom is an essential device for household cleaning. Brooms have been around for centuries, changing very little, and are still as useful as ever. When the first domestic vacuum cleaners appeared around 1905, one might have assumed the days of brooms were numbered. That portable suction device did become indispensable, yet the vacuum did not supplant the broom the way the automobile supplanted the horse and buggy.
But, let’s not get sucked into the vacuum story. This post is about brooms, specifically the brooms of Boise.
The broom business in Boise started in a small way in 1875 when Mr. Douglass Markham, a blind man, harvested a small crop of broom corn near Middleton and cobbled together a few brooms for sale. The Idaho Statesman noted that local brooms could sell for 25 cents less than imported brooms and opined that “Any man who will engage in the business extensively enough to supply the trade will soon make a nice little fortune.” The paper estimated that the fledgling territory could use 2,000 brooms a year.
By 1879 the Idaho Statesman was regularly running an ad for brooms placed by one Jacob Meyer, boasting that his brooms “have the best quality of bright, healthy broom corn, nicely turned handles, firmly bound with wire, and are strong and durable.”
Broom corn is a type of sorghum that features fibrous seed branches that can be as long as 36 inches. Table corn originated in the Americas, but broomcorn has its roots (figuratively) in central Africa. It spread all over the Mediterranean during the Dark Ages. So, one tick in the positive column for the Dark Ages, I guess.
But what about Ben? According to an 1899 article in the Idaho Statesman (and numerous other sources), Franklin “should be the patron saint of housewives.” Let me quickly add that husbands have also been known to master sweeping. The Statesman article said that there was “a very pleasant little fairy story concerning Benjamin Franklin… The story goes that Dr. Franklin was examining a whisk broom that had been brought over from England. He found a single seed on the broom, picked it off, planted it, and raised a stalk of corn from which is descended all the broom corn of the United States.”
At one time there were several hundred broom factories scattered around the country. As with most manufacturing the operations consolidated into Big Broom, so to speak. Today there has been a bit of a renaissance in broom making. It has become something of an artisanal occupation in many places.