Thursday, November 7, 2013

“Schenectady Brooms Keep the Nation’s Homes Clean:” Brooms and Broomcorn in Schenectady County

Broomcorn growing along the banks of the Mohawk River at Schenectady's shore around 1870. The old Burr Bridge that connected the foot of Washington Avenue with Scotia can also be seen in this photograph. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.


Today, Schenectady is often referred to as “The City That Lights & Hauls the World,” due to the presence of General Electric and the American Locomotive Company. Before that, the common phrase was “Schenectady brooms keep the nation’s homes clean.”  In the mid-1880s, Schenectady was the leading producer of both broomcorn and brooms. At its peak, the county led broom production in the United States, sending out one million brooms a year to all parts of the nation.  Schenectady brooms won several prizes at the Philadelphia Centennial World’s Fair in 1876.

A "Best Parlor" broom made in Schenectady by H. Whitmyre Jr. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

The tradition of broommaking thrived in the Mohawk Valley in the 19th century with brooms first being hand-bound on farms and later being manufactured on a larger scale. Many families in Schenectady County grew broomcorn and contributed to the area’s growing industry. The flats and islands of the Mohawk River provided ideal conditions for the broommaking boom that occurred New York during the mid-1800s.

Notice of auction of Maalwyck Farm in Scotia, one of the many local farms where broomcorn was grown. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

According to the Gazetteer of the State of New York, Schenectady County produced more broomcorn than any other county in the state during the first half of the 19th Century. Half of New York State’s entire production came from Schenectady. In 1880, Schenectady County’s broomcorn production peaked at 1,500 acres.

Interior of Whitmyre Broom Shop at 150 1/2 Front Street in 1947. Owner Harvey H. Whitmyre (left) looks on as an employee works. The Whitmyre factory had a long history in Schenectady and stayed in business throughout most of the 1970s. The building is now a condominium. Image from Larry Hart Collection.

Six years later, it had dropped to below 500 acres. Eventually, competition from farmers in the Midwest proved too strong for New York farmers who stopped growing the crop in the last decades of the 19th century. Although Schenectady was no longer a leading producer of broomcorn, it remained a significant manufacturer of brooms into the 20th century. The Whitmyre Broom Factory in Schenectady remained in operation into the 1970s.

You can learn more about the history of brooms, broomcorn, and Schenectady County's role -- agriculturally, industrially, and in everyday life -- at the exhibit Swept Away: The History and Culture of Brooms, now on exhibit through January 2014 at the Franchere Education Center at the Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction. A sneak peek at the exhibit and some of the artifacts on display are included below. For more information about the exhibit, please contact our Educator/Assistant Curator Jenna Peterson or call 518-887-5073.

Image of exhibit Swept Away: The History and Culture of Brooms, open now through January 2014 at the Franchere Education Center, Mabee Farm Historic Site. 

Broom machine - The broom machine, also known as a winder, holds the broom handle in a vice while a hollow shaft rotates to wind string or wire around the broomcorn laid alongside the handle. The machine is operated by a hand crank or a treadle, turned in a constant motion to keep the vice spinning. Broomcorn is added around the outside of the handle to fill out the broom to the desired shape and size. Between each layer of broomcorn, the winder rotates the handle, pulling the wire tight enough to hold the last layer in place.  

Sewing vice - A broom sewing vice consists of two jaws that can be tightened by a screw or lever to hold the head of the broom in place. As the vice tightens, the broomcorn is compressed so that it can be sewn flat. The Shakers created the first vice to flatten brooms in the early 1800s. In 1861, Schenectady resident T.C. Hargraves developed an improved version of the broom sewing vice. His patent submission explained that his invention was “intended for the purpose of holding brooms while the stitches are being put in to hold the corn below the handle.”

2 comments:

  1. This kind or article and exhibit shows a historical society at its finest. I've read about Schenectady's broom industry since 1943-1953 when I was a kiddo at Elmer Avenue School, but this article and photos put meat on the bones like none other.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This kind or article and exhibit shows a historical society at its finest. I've read about Schenectady's broom industry since 1943-1953 when I was a kiddo at Elmer Avenue School, but this article and photos put meat on the bones like none other.

    ReplyDelete