How the Broom Became Flat
A history of the sturdy household essential.
With the advent of the broom machine and the Shaker design, broom-making’s popularity spread rapidly across the United States, reaching its apex around 1850 when more than 1 million brooms were being constructed each year in Massachusetts alone, and being sold as far away as South America.
Photo by Richard Boyer/Library of Congress.
Eventually, broom-making followed national expansion to the western states, where broomcorn was considered to grow better. By the turn of the 20th century, the industry had significantly declined in the Northeast. Following the larger trends of industrialization in all trades, small broom shops in the United States gradually expanded into factories to meet demand, their manufacturing techniques continuing to require skilled, hands-on labor, until 1994, when NAFTA made Mexican brooms cheaper and forced many American outfits to close. Currently, most of the United States’ natural fiber brooms come from south of the border, with only a few local makers remaining.
Perhaps the biggest change in the broom world over the last century is the rise of the synthetic lookalike. Following the development of the first synthetic fibers in the 1940s, companies like DuPont started creating filaments and extruded plastic products just in time for the consumer boom of the 1950s and 60s. These technologies were quickly adapted for brooms—especially the school janitor-size, “push” broom varieties—and these styles continue to sell alongside the old natural models today. Many homeowners keep one of each on hand, using the softer, plastic bristles on sensitive hardwoods and the hardier broomcorn for heavier jobs.
Rubbermaid Regular Stain Resistant Bristles Angle Broom; Hoover FH50220 Max Extract 60 Blue Carpet Cleaner; Swiffer Sweep & Vac by Procter & Gamble 04815.
The modern homemaker can choose from a range of implements to clean his floors, including synthetic brooms, the constantly metastasizing Swiffer product line, and, of course, the vacuum cleaner. The last of these is highly effective at certain tasks (especially the cleaning of carpets), but most American homes still keep an old-fashioned broom around for its unfailing dependability. For a household item essentially perfected in its design so many decades ago, the broom’s staying power—both as a cleaning tool and cultural symbol of neat domestic tranquility—is remarkable and deserved.
And then there’s just the question of aesthetics: A sturdy broom looks a whole lot nicer than a dirty napkin on flimsy plastic stick.
J. Bryan Lowder is the Slate editorial assistant for culture.