Farmers in Iowa are busy harvesting corn and soybeans from their fields. Nowadays, a lot of Iowa’s corn and crops are grown to feed to animals. In the late 1800s, Iowa farmers sometimes grew a very special plant called broomcorn for a different purpose. Most brooms in the past were made from this plant. Broomcorn is actually not a type of corn at all. It is part of a family of plants called sorghum. Farmers grew broomcorn and sold it to factories, as a way to make some extra money. The harvesting took place in the fall, along with their other crops.
But how did the long broomcorn tassels grown on the farm become a broom? In the late 1800s, brooms were made in big and small factories. Some of the factories in Iowa had only two workers and a couple of factories had over 30 workers. Most factories, like the one we show at Living History Farms, had around 6-10 workers.
One of the first steps to making a broom was to soak the broomcorn in water.
Broomcorn is kind of like spaghetti, it breaks easily when it is dry and bends when it is wet. Once the broomcorn was soaked enough to bend, it was ready to move to the binding machine (also called a kicker). The person running the binding machine used their foot to make the machine turn and their hands to hold the broomcorn under the working wire that wraps the bristles onto a handle. Brooms are made in layers. Each layer was wrapped tight to the handle using twine or metal wire. The wire was hammered down tight around the broomcorn and handle before the next layer was attached.
Some brooms had what are called shoulders – two bundles of broomcorn on each side of the broom – which gave them a curved look at the top. The shoulders had to be put on just right so that they didn’t flatten out. Some brooms used only a small amount of broomcorn, like the laundry/cake tester broom and the hearth broom, while other brooms used a lot of broomcorn, like the house broom. Once a broom had all of the layers on it, which could be three to seven layers, it was ready to be taken out of the first machine to dry.
If the broom was not allowed to dry, it could become moldy inside. At the museum, brooms are hung from the ceiling for at least a day to make sure that all the layers are dry. A laundry/cake tester broom and a hearth broom would have one less step than other brooms. Other brooms like the house broom, children’s broom, and whisk broom were all flat brooms, and in order to make them flat, they had to go into a machine called a sewing vice.
This machine smashed the broom flat so that a worker could use string and needles to sew the broom. The sewing is what kept the broom flat once it was taken out of the vice.
Once the broom was trimmed, it was inspected to make sure it was properly made. If it was, the broom was sent to stores to be sold. If workers had made all the broomcorn even around the handle, and if they had sewn it just right, and trimmed everything evenly, the broom would pass the test of being able to stand up straight without being held. Not every broom was made perfect in a factory, so having a broom stand up on its own was a pretty special thing.
Once the brooms were at the store, it was up to people to buy the right broom for the job they had to do! Brooms were an important part of every household and they were used for many different purposes.A small laundry broom could be dipped in water to sprinkle onto clean clothes before using a hot iron. This would create steam, so wrinkles could be ironed out. A hearth broom was used to sweep ashes back into a fireplace. A whisk broom had the handle cut off, so it could get under places where handles would get in the way. A house broom was used to clean the big rooms in a house. A children’s broom was for the children to help clean the house. Do you have a broom to help with cleaning? If you do, just think of the steps it took to make it for you!