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.
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.