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Cleaning up with straw, brush brooms
Now and Then
roger branch

From the frontier era through much of the 20th century, country folk made many of their tools and implements from resources readily at hand from nature or things they grew. This included things used to clean houses and yards, notably straw brooms for houses and brush brooms for yards.

Straw brooms, used to sweep floors, were made from a type of grass that grew tall, one to five feet. Strong stems ended in a bundle of blades up to two feet long. Called broom sedge (more often sage), this plant flourished in old fields allowed to become fallow (lie out) and in fence rows. At the end of the growing season when stems were dry, carefully selected plants were cut just above ground level. They were arranged in a bundle about two inches in diameter and secured with a strong cord wound in a spiral from base of the leaves to the cut end of the stem.

This might seem like an ineffective tool, but those tough leaves left little dirt or dust behind and worked well when cleaning under beds. They lasted longer than most modern people would expect and cost nothing to produce except effort from people who expected life to be filled with labor.

Brush brooms were not actually brooms in the usual sense. They were used to sweep yards. Until relatively recent times, country homes were not surrounded by lawns. Any grass that intruded upon yards was smitten with hoes, in some places eaten by geese. Bare ground was the standard. Everything else, from leaves to chicken droppings, was swept up and removed. (Chickens were not confined, could not be litterbox trained and left their droppings wherever nature demanded, including the front yard at the end of the steps leading into the house.)

Yards were cleaned, not with spring-toothed lawn rakes, but with brush brooms. This tool was composed of a bundle of gall berry bushes tightly bound with cord. Gall berries grow in moist woodlands two to six feet tall. They are tough from ground to end of every limb. They produce small, shiny green leaves and small, shiny black berries. The whole plant, root to berries, is bitter to the taste, thus the “gall” in the name. The only critters that I ever saw eat the berries were robins.

Select bushes were cut at the end of the growing season and allowed to dry, which did away with the bitterness. When the dried leaves were shaken or beaten off, a cluster of small, tough branches remained as the sweeping part of brush brooms. They would wear out — of course — but the remaining stems served as effective whips to guide or threaten beasts or brats. Cost? Nothing but a little labor.

Stick brooms could be fashioned from homemade handles and heads of corn shucks or rags. Many homes had a store-bought stick broom used sparingly for particular applications. Used sparingly because they cost money, hard-to-get money.

There were homemade tools beyond brooms for cleaning floors. Mops could be made from rags fastened to oak or hickory handles cut from nearby woodlands.

The heavy-duty floor cleaner was the shuck scrub. It was composed of a sturdy block of wood, preferably durable cypress, about a foot square and two inches thick. An auger was used to drill parallel lines of holes into which corn shucks were inserted stem first and fastened at the top of the scrub with small nails. A sturdy handle was inserted through another hole drilled into the top side of the scrub. Shucks were replaced as necessary.

Shuck scrubs were heavy, often wielded by strong-armed husbands or near-grown sons during twice-a-year house cleanings. Then all movable furniture was removed, bedding sunned, quilts washed, rugs beaten and floors “scrubbed and scoured” with hot water laced with lye soap. After thorough rinsing, all wood touched by this process became several shades lighter in color. No living thing survived, not bedbugs or bacteria. This treatment might even destroy COVID-19. 

But that was then and this is now. Carpet and parquet floors would not tolerate hot, lye-soaped water and where would anyone find the raw materials necessary for these homemade cleaning tools?

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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