Making a Clean Sweep: Guelph’s Broom Making Industry
Brooms were an essential tool for Guelph’s housewives. Shopkeepers, hotel operators and other service and retail personnel also needed them to sweep floors, the sidewalks in front of their shops and for general cleaning purposes. These might well differ from those that local farmers made for their own use. Depending upon access, basic brooms for the 19th century can be divided into two types: splint and broom corn.
In some parts of the country, local native North Americans made and sold “splint brooms.” This was a length of debarked wood either one and one-half or two inches thick that was splintered in a specific manner then bound together to produce a viable broom. Alternatively, farmers could make their own booms out of broom corn (Sorghum vulgare). This plant could be grown in small patches of land for use.
Unless they could afford to import them from elsewhere, Guelphites purchased and used locally-made brooms. From its founding in 1827, Guelph provided employment for several small shops during the 1800s. Most were small cottage industries. Like boot and shoe makers, those who worked in this trade tended to work out of their homes.
In the same fashion as many crafts and trades, technology was to negatively impact these small operations. Indeed, the arrival of broom factories was to reduce the need for many of the independent shops. Later, with improved transportation and shipping, the favour was returned as local broom factories succumbed to cheaper imported brooms. Eventually, broom corn was no longer considered economically viable for large production lots. Plastic and straw have become common replacements. However, Guelph broom makers worked with corn broom possibly grown locally, brought in from Sarnia or imported from the United States.
Guelph Broom Makers
Guelph relied on several local tradespeople to provide them with their brooms. Unfortunately, little is actually recorded or even known about their work, their shops and the different styles/qualities of broom each shop produced. The list below is a brief and, regrettably, highly uninformative one.
· Jarvis Clarence: His broom and feather duster shop was a large one, for the craft. Operating in 1881, he had 7 hands working at broom production in 1882/1883 out of his premises at the corner of Norfolk and Northumberland. In 1882/83, he boarded at Queen’s Hotel.
· Guelph Brand Brooms: William J Hamilton operated this shop at the corner of Perth and Norwich. This may be the same shop occupied by Sterling Broom in
· Walter Pearson: He made brooms in a shop that may be part of his home on Liverpool as early as 1917. In the 1921 Census, he was listed as a 62-year-old Methodist broom maker with a wife and three daughters living with him. Pearson continued to make brooms until at least 1933.
· Select Broom: This was a small shop at Paisley near York Road.
· Sterling Broom Co: This firm, a small broom factory, operated in the 20th century. Originally at 92 Perth, the home of Guelph Brand Brooms, its shop was located at Norwich St. Bridge around 1920. It was the site of a fire on March 28, 1923. However, it was rebuilt and continued to operate until possibly 1931 – perhaps as a separate entity because, in 1928, it was formally amalgamated with 2 other Ontario broom factories – the Waterloo Brush and Broom Company (Waterloo) and the Royal Broom Company (Ingersoll). Under the name of Royal Sterling Products, a new factory was created in Harriston. Some irregularities in the bookkeeping and the seizure of the plant in November 1936, resulted in a Fraud investigation. The company, although it was not exonerated, did survive the proceedings.
Guelph no longer produces factory brooms. Hand-made brooms are available in specialty shops and in such markets as those located in St. Jacob’s. Broom corn is still grown for this use.