Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Shake that broom

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be"
- Shaker hymn

If you're familiar with the Shakers, then you probably know about the lovely boxes they made. And perhaps Shaker furniture. But for a religious group that embraced "Simple Gifts" they were surprisingly inventive. According to Wikipedia...

"Shakers won respect and admiration for their productive farms and orderly communities. Their industry brought about many inventions like Babbitt metal, the rotary , the circular saw, the clothespin, the Shaker peg, the flat broom, the wheel-driven washing machine, a machine for setting teeth in textile cards, a threshing machine, metal pens, a new type of fire engine, a machine for matching boards, numerous innovations in waterworks, planing machinery, a hernia truss, silk reeling machinery, small looms for weaving palm leaf, machines for processing broom corn, ball-and-socket tilters for chair legs, and a number of other useful inventions. Shakers were the first large producers of medicinal herbs in the United States, and pioneers in the sale of seeds in paper packets"
Perhaps lost in the list above is "flat broom". What, you ask, could there be any other shape for a broom?  Slate magazine has well-written history of the broom,
bundles of twigs, reeds, corn husks, and other natural fibers have almost certainly been used since ancient times to sweep up ash and embers around fires and, later, hearths. 
“what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?” - Luke 15:8
For over two thousand years brooms looked like the image at right; what we think of today as a witch's broom and sometimes called a "besom" broom. About 200 years ago, farmer Levi Dickinson discovered that a sorghum grass, now called "broomcorm" made a great besom broom. This was modernized and sold in mass production.
"The Shaker intervention [...] was simple but ingenious: Instead of lashing the broomcorn in a round bundle to the handle, they found that securing the corn with wire, flattening it with a vice and sewing it tight resulted in superior cleaning tool. [...] The Shakers also pioneered the smaller whisk broom, perfect for one-handed dusting and sweeping of higher surfaces" -
Next time you use a flat broom, give a prayer of thanks to the Shakers.

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