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Broom Tales

October 29, 2012

 

Clare and I enjoyed breakfast at the Skillet Restaurant one morning last week. As we finished our meal, I noticed two ladies standing at the checkout. While waiting to pay their tab, they examined a display of brooms placed near the door by the local Lion’s Club. The available selections featured brooms of various sizes and prices.

“You need a broom for Halloween,” one said to the other.

“Are you saying I’m a witch?” her companion asked.

“I’m just saying. You need a broom.”

“I haven’t been called a witch lately, but something close to that.”

“Yeah, me, too. Maybe we both need a broom.”

I thought about witches I have known. When I was growing up there was an old woman who lived way down beyond my house where the pavement ended and the road turned to red dirt. She had a big, black cast-iron pot in her yard and several mean dogs. One day I walked down there by myself. I heard a shotgun blast. I was pretty sure she shot at me. I thought she might have been a witch.

When I was in high school, I encountered three witches as characters in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. I can still remember their chant.

“Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

At Halloween, the image of witches riding across the sky on magical broomsticks is common. Where did the notion that witches ride brooms originate? It developed during the witchcraft hysteria, with subsequent mass executions, beginning in the early 16th Century in Europe.

The bread of the common folk, rye bread, was a staple in every home.  Rye bread that aged became host to a mold called ergot. In high doses, ergot could be lethal. In smaller doses, it became quite popular among herbalists as a cure. It’s mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare and in writings from the witchcraft age.

Medicinal preparations made from ergot helped to relieve migraine headaches by constricting the swollen blood vessels that caused the pain. One ergot derivative was also useful in preventing hemorrhaging following childbirth by causing uterine muscles to contract. They were also used to ease menstrual difficulties.

Some ancient herbalists applied ergot ointment to the female body using a smooth stick, as, for example, a broomstick. However, ergot is also a source of LSD and the hallucinogenic effects are powerful. Women given this treatment often experienced altered states of consciousness including fanciful flights. Some who observed women under the influence of the drug were convinced that the women were possessed by demons.  Therefore they were thought to be witches. So brooms, magical flights, and witches became connected in the public mind.

Novelist J. K. Rowling gave us the high-tech broomstick in her popular fantasies about Harry Potter. The first broomstick Harry owned was the Nimbus Two Thousand. The amazing transport allowed Harry to fly through the air, especially in Quidditch matches. But in a competition at Hogwarts in Harry’s third year, he was attacked by Dementors. Rendered unconscious, Harry fell off his broom. The errant Nimbus flew into the Whomping Willow. The tree objected to being hit and smashed Harry’s broom to bits. Later in the epic tale, Harry’s godfather, Sirius, replaced the Nimbus with a Firebolt, a considerable upgrade in the broomstick world.

My most recent encounter with a witch was in a television commercial for GEICO insurance. A witch with a sinister laugh flies around a broom manufacturing plant. She stops to snag a fresh broom from one of the intimidated employees and continues her giddy flight. Two guys, one playing the mandolin, the second a guitar, croon that those who choose GEICO insurance are happier than a witch in a broom factory.

The commercial raises a question about the manufacture of brooms.

Brooms have been used for centuries to sweep caves, campsites, cabins, and castles. In America, making brooms is considered a heritage craft. All American brooms were handmade prior to the eighteenth century.  They were unrefined round brooms made from fibrous materials such as grass, straw, hay, fine twigs, or corn husks.  The broom sweep was tied onto a handle made from a tree branch. Cordage used to tie the broom was woven from hemp and flax. Homemade brooms swept clean the floor and the hearth, but they fell apart easily.

In 1797 a Massachusetts farmer, Levi Dickenson, made a broom for his wife. He used the tassels left from his harvested sorghum.  His version swept better than others. Dickson started making brooms for his neighbors.

After the invention of the foot-treadle broom machine in 1810, broom shops appeared in many communities. Like the Lion’s Club display at the Skillet, customers were offered a choice of buying a small handled broom for use in tight areas around the fireplace or a long-handled one to sweep the open wood or dirt floors in their homes.

The less ornate craftsmanship of the Shakers changed the design of the round broom in the mid-1820′s.  They eliminated the woven stems up the handle and introduced wire to bind their brooms to the handle.  Using a vise to press the broom flat, it was stitched with linen cord.

By 1830, the United States was producing enough brooms to export to other countries in South America and in Europe. The American broom industry thrived until 1994 when foreign brooms were permitted to be imported into the United States, duty-free.

Brooms play an important role in southern legend and lore. Jumping over the broom is a euphemism for marriage. The exact origin of the custom is uncertain. A commonly held belief is that the practice has roots in Africa. However, there are no recorded instances of African weddings that involved jumping over a broom.

What is certain is that brooms were spiritual symbols in some African regions. In Ghana brooms were waved above the heads of newlyweds and their parents.

Some anthropologists believe that jumping over the broom at weddings was first known in Wales, originating either among the Welsh people themselves or among gypsies living in Wales. If so, the custom must have come to the colonies through Welsh settlers and then transferred to the slaves of the South. When a couple jumps over the broom together, their marriage is confirmed, and they will enjoy a good life together.

The Irish have a saying worth remembering. “A new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows the corners”

My grandmother use to say, “Never take an old broom to a new house.” This may explain the southern custom of giving a new broom as a housewarming gift.

Recently, one of our grandsons was helping me sweep the back porch. I used a grandfather-size broom; he used a child’s broom. I was reminded of a couple of old broom superstitions.

  • Always sweep dirt out the back door, or you will sweep away your best friend.
  • When a child takes a broom and begins to sweep, company is coming.

About that time his parents showed up to take him home.

Kirk H. Neely
© October 2012
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