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It seems even William Shakespeare had household floors to keep clean. While it likely wouldn’t have been the actual William doing the majority of the sweeping in his household, one item the bard seems to have been familiar with through his nineteen uses of the word “sweep” and one use of the word “besom” across his works is the household broom used for sweeping floors. The bard uses “broom” at least 3 times in his plays, mentioning once a broom-staff, and in The Tempest, Shakespeare calls attention to a “broom-grove” suggesting there was a particular plant or tree used for growing the material to make brooms in the 16th century. Here today to help us explore the people who made brooms, exactly who was doing the sweeping in Shakespeare’s lifetime, as well as the folklore surrounding the broom also called broom-besom, is our guest and author of “Why does Puck Sweep?” the article examining the household cleaning scene of one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Please welcome our guest, Wendy Wall.
Wendy Wall is Avalon Professor of the Humanities at Northwestern University, specializing in early modern English literature and culture. Past President of the Shakespeare Association of America and co-creator of The Pulter Project: Poet in the Making, Wall is author of The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance; Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama; and Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen. Her work verges into media studies, food studies, women’s writing, global Shakespeare, theater, poetry, authorship studies, and national identity. She undertakes public humanities work that includes teaching in two prison programs.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Wendy Wall about:
In 1584 Reginald Scot wrote a book titled “the discoverie of witchcraft” in which he identifies the custom of rewarding fairies for doing work at night, specifically calling out one fairy, Robin Goodfellow for “sweeping the house at midnight.” Wendy, how is the broom associated with fairies?
- What was a broom made of?
- What did people do with the dust they swept up? Were there 16th century dust pans?
To make cold nymphs chaste crowns; and thy broom -groves,
Whose shadow the dismissed bachelor loves,
Broom growing on the battlefield of Culloden (Scotland). Photo by Alexis CESAR | Image Source | 2015, CCASA4.0
Broom is a Kind of Plant
The implement we use today to clean our floors and named “the broom” gets its’ name from the plant that was first used to create this instrument. The broom plant was grown during Shakespeare’s lifetime in the kind of “broom-groves” Shakespeare writes about in The Tempest. The broom grove would have looked like a large field field with these yellow flowers known as broom. Brooms could also have been made with the twigs from a birch tree, so when Shakespeare says “broom grove” he could also be referring to a grove of birch trees. Our guest this week explains:
“[Brooms were made from] Twigs of birches, or twigs from the broom flower, the broom plant is a yellow flowering shrub, and the word “broom” could refer to those flowers, recipes of the period will list “broom” and they [would be referring to the plant, not the sweeping implement.]”
I made good my place: at length they came to the broom-staff to me;
Example of a birch besom. These kinds of brooms would have been very common during Shakespeare’s lifetime. This image was taken by Thomas Schmidt (Schmidti) in 2005. The imaeg is shared here under CCASA3.0 | Original Source
A Broom Besom was Rounded, Not Flat
…except that they weren’t flat. Round. Three objects, a handle, the twigs, and a string. Tracks, Example: describing what peddlers did with a diy way to make a broom recipe in it, the twigs, the handle, and the winding rope. People made their own brooms, but they also were not that expensive. You could buy them from a broom seller. 1800s a guy decided to use a material called broom corn.
I am the besom that must sweep the court clean of such
filth as thou art.
“The Brush Binder” 1698 by Christopher Weigel. Copper Engraving Print on Paper, Ständebuch & Beruf & Handwerk & Besenbinder & Bürstenmacher. Public Domain. Original Source
Brooms were bought and sold from broom peddlers
Considered a lower class job for someone who otherwise had no occupation, the broom peddler was both a common sight in Elizabethan England as well as comparable to the carpet bagger of the Civil War Era United States. They were salesmen (and women) who carried brooms (likely that they made themselves) around in a basket or cart to sell. As noted in many early modern plays, these broom sellers were famous for calling out to their potential customers not only that they were selling these wares, but often moralizing the spirtual benefits of brooms to try and increase sales.
Wendy describes these peddlers,
Broom women, broom sellers, carried large packs from town to town mocked for carrying large packs and when they open them, they spill ou there wares which were needles, pots, and even broadsides (one page cheaply printed ballads cponsumed like news)…and peddlers would even trade things, “I’ll trade you for a broom.” In plays, they are noted for their sound that they cry out what they cry out when they sell their wares. There’s one play after Shakespeare that has a broom seller cry out “Why don’t they just buy a broom?” condemning people for not using the broom properly. There was this itinerant peddler who was a lower class individual.
1737 Broom Peddler. Etching with some engraving. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953. Contributed to Wikimedia Commons by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain. Original Source
Resources Wendy Wall Recommends:
Wendy recommnded an article from Slate explaining how the broom became flat. Read that here.
Not wanting you to have no where to turn when exploring this topic further, Cassidy did some digging into the history of brooms and the broom besom. Here are a few titles that might get you started on your exploration:
Here are some websites you may also find interesting:
This company, called Tudor Environmental, sells birch besoms (made similarly to what you would have seen in the 16th century).
Article from “Old and Interesting” about the history of the broom Note this article does not deal with Tudor England, only goes back to 1800.
This article delves into the 15th century a little and talks about folklore related to brooms.
The Museum of English Rural Life has a scantly populated page on the making of besom brooms. This museum is likely a fount of information, but their website is seriously lacking in anything substantive. Fortunately, there is prominent contact information provided and you can contact them to learn more.
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There are plenty of broom plants around here, and as the flowers fall off it’s easy to see how brooms were made of the branches. I kept expecting some mention of the song, “Green Broom,” about lazy but charming John.
That is really neat! We do not have broom blants here (that I’ve ever seen), so that’s cool you get to see those. That song would have made a good addition! Thank you for sharing that reference.
I forgot to mention that I always thought Puck was sweeping away the dust the housemaids had overlooked that was behind the door! Upon rereading, I just don’t know which he is doing — putting it there or taking it away!
Hello Dorothy! That’s a good catch! He seems to be sweeping it up, to keep it. Wendy indicates there are some historical references to suggest the dust was actually useful, being collected for that purpose.