Hi there! How are things? It’s hard living in such uncertain times, isn’t it? It hardly seems relevant to be talking about antiques, but work can be a welcome distraction. Meanwhile, I’m praying for health and hope for our nation and for those facing Covid 19 and the evils of racism. I know you are as well. Please, stay safe!
No way to smoothly segue into today’s topic, so here it is: whisk brooms have fascinated me for some time now. They come in all shapes, sizes, and materials, making them an interesting item to collect. I hope you enjoy today’s guide to vintage whisk brooms 🙂
The term “whisk” likely became associated with these small brooms because of their ability to quickly and easily “whisk away” dirt, dust, crumbs, or whatever happens to be bothering you. While small brushes have had various labels attached to them (we’ll look at a list below), for me, they all fall under the general category of “whisk.” So, there you go.
In this post, we’ll take a look at whisk broom history, values, and a number of examples. And in addition, we’ll learn the role the Shakers played in the development of the broom and consider the Amish contribution as well.
The History of the Whisk Broom
Sometimes called “hand brooms” or “dusters,” whisk brooms are smaller, hand-held versions of “regular” brooms. So its history is inextricably linked to the larger type.
Over 2000 years ago Jesus made reference to the broom–did you know that? It was news to me, but in Luke 15:8 during the course of telling a parable he says, “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”
In fact, some version of the broom has been in use since ancient times. Fine twigs or corn husks tied tightly to a sturdy branch allowed one to keep a tidy home, but not for long since these early brooms easily fell apart. The pressure applied while sweeping was more than the homemade implement could handle.
The Invention of the Broom
Enter Gregory H. Nobles, a Massachusetts’s farmer who had the inspired idea of using what came to be known as “broom corn” (shown above) to make a broom for his wife back in 1778. The sturdy but finer quality of this tasseled grass made it ideal for sweeping.
Here you see it in dried form, ready to be bundled and made into a broom.
As the story goes, he used the broom corn to create a round broom–typical at the time. It might have looked something like this one, though he would have made it by hand.
The Shakers & the Broom
I had the pleasure of sitting in on a broom-making session at the nearby Shaker Heritage Society. Paul Russell, a master broom-maker, took us step-by-step through the process of creating a broom.
This beautiful antique vise held the broom handle while he tightly wrapped the broom corn in place using cotton cord. In the case of more modern brooms and whisk brooms, wire is now used instead of cord.
Paul makes brooms in all sizes, including small, round whisk brooms like this one.
Historians credit Theodore Bates, a Shaker in the Watervliet community near me, with inventing a vise grip in 1779 that allowed the manufacture of flat brooms (Wikipedia). They proved to be generally more effective at cleaning than the round variety.
The vise permitted the broom to be flattened and the broom corn to be sewn into place. Almost every Shaker community eventually participated in the manufacture of brooms, producing thousands upon thousands throughout the 19th century.
The Amish & the Broom
A few years ago we spent a night in Lancaster County (PA) and took an Amish buggy ride that led us to an authentic Amish farm.
On the way out, we stopped at the family shop, bought some home brewed root beer and snapped a photo of their handmade brooms. Broom-making, like baked goods, furniture, and quilts, offer an opportunity for many Amish to use their “homey” skills to earn some income.
How Much are Vintage Whisk Brooms Worth?
I sell ordinary vintage whisk brooms, like these three (c. 1940-50’s), for $8-12 each from my antique booth. They are very reliable sellers so I always pick them up when I see them for a dollar or less.
Older brooms with distinctive features, like brass or silver handles or velvet trim can achieve prices from $15 on up. Below we’ll take a look at some examples and suggested values.
Vintage & Antique Whisk Broom Examples
The 3 1/2″ broom with the brass grip (or “cap”) and handle is a recent find for $3. It’s so perfectly shaped and balanced and all of its mechanics so discretely hidden by the cap. I would date it to about the 1930’s. Were I to sell it, I would price it in the $20-25 range.
The broom on the right bears the typical metal cap, wire wrapping, and cotton stitching of the most common whisk broom, but it’s hardly common. It, too, is quite dainty at just 5″ in length and is clearly well-made. I have used it in a number of photo shoots, like for my level rack, so it’s priceless to me 🙂 But I would value it at $12-15.
This reddish whisk broom is of a completely different design, with the broom corn thrust into drilled holes in the wooden handle and likely secured with glue. Value of this c. 1940’s whisk broom: $10-12.
Similar in style to the previous hand broom, this one has a metal cap and plastic bristles, dating it to the 20th century. Value of this c. 1950’s whisk broom: $10-12.
I’ve heard references to “Fuller brush men” for years. Have you? They sold their wares door to door (for 114 years!) and off-color jokes would sometimes be told about them. Poor fellows.
The brushes, known for their quality, “became not homely commodities but specialized tools obtainable nowhere else,” except from a Fuller brush man (American Heritage). And proving their distinct value, millions have been sold through the years and the company remains in business to this day.
In any event, the brush was a fun find– round with a white wooden handle and white plastic bristles. Value of this c. 1960’s brush: $10-12.
The broom in the back is pretty standard, but the one in the front has a blue velvet “collar” with matching thread that sets it apart from many others. This c. 1940’s whisk broom sold for $18 in 2014.
An here’s another with a velvet collar–this time white–but with a silver plated handle and white plastic bristles. This c. 1930-40’s whisk broom sold for $15 in 2015 (had some bristle stains on the reverse).
My latest acquisition: a small whisk broom with a red, wooden handle (c. 1930’s)–LOVE IT. Value: $12-15.
This lovely butler or crumb brush (c. 1910’s) with floral repoussé handle, made of sterling silver with hair bristles would have come with a matching tray. It sold for $35 in 2015.
Other Names & Uses for Whisk Brooms
As I mentioned in the intro to this post, these small brooms have had a variety of different names or purposes attached to them.
At one point in our history, in homes with servants, it was common for crumbs to be “swept” off the table between courses onto a matching tray. Those brushes were known as “crumb” or “butler’s” brushes.
Before a man walked out of the house for work, his wife might have brushed the collar and shoulders of his coat with a “collar” or “clothes” brush.
And a barber would use a similar brush to remove hair from a patron’s neck and shoulders after a hair cut or to apply talcum powder after a haircut to allow for easier removal of cut hair and prevent chaffing from one’s collar.
Here are a list of common names/uses for small brushes:
- Whisk broom
- Hand broom
- Crumb brush
- Butler’s brush
- Clothes brush
- Collar brush
- Hat brush
- Barber’s brush or barber’s neck brush or barber’s talc brush
Decorating with Antique & Vintage Whisk Brooms
The warmth of aged broom corn and the whisk broom’s homey appeal make it the perfect accessory for farmhouse style decorating.
Collected together with a few other antiques, like this tomato pin cushion, needle case, and antique glasses, would allow you to easily create a charming vignette.
Decorating with them is fun 🙂 Be sure to tell me in the comments below about your favorite whisk broom and whether they are good sellers for you.
UPDATE (August 24, 2020):
Meda, a faithful follower for years sent in this photo of her charming collection of whisk brooms:
Notice the vintage Flemish Art (pyrography) rack they’re hanging from(!). You can visit her on Instagram and enjoy many of her vintage and antiques.
Thanks for stopping by!
Bye for now,
I’d SO appreciate a pin!