Saturday, April 27, 2013

A clean sweep: the broom factories

In a "housewives' manual," the San Francisco Call advised  sweeping carpets with "plenty of salt in the fight against moths."  Gearing up to sweep the house was a major chore.  (Image, San Francisco Call, October 15, 1905)

An advertisement from the 1926 Orange County, California, Directory, touts the "superior brooms" being made in Huntington Beach, one of the City's early businesses. (Image, Fullerton Public Library)

   "Hezekiah Thompson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1864, and while a youth he learned the trade of broom maker."     ~History of Henry County, Missouri, 1919

   We may not give much thought to brooms today.  However at turn-of-the-century Huntington Beach pioneers were setting up homes, contending with dirt roads and Santa Ana winds.  Men like Hezekiah Thompson saw an opportunity and the business of brooms  became part of Huntington Beach's early manufacturing economy.

Brooms were a serious item in every household, as noted in this letter-to-the-editor complaining about broom prices.  (Image, Los Angeles Herald, April 20, 1910) 
The La Bolsa Station for the Southern Pacific and Pacific Electric rail lines, near the broom factories outside the Huntington Beach downtown. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives).

   Hezekiah Thompson was running a thriving broom factory in Missouri, when he decided to sell his holdings and move west.  Hezekiah's sons--Walter and Benjamin Thompson had followed him in the broom trade but remained behind in Missouri--continuing to operate a successful family manufacturing business.

   Setting up house in Long Beach, Hezekiah took advantage of available industrial land offered by the Huntington Beach Company, near the Holly Sugar Company, Pierce Home Cannery, and Pacific Oil Cloth and Linoleum factory.  A key advantage for the Beach Broom Co. and the other businesses in the area was the proximity to the La Bolsa Station of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

     Nearby, the proprietors of the Pacific Broom Company---J.A. Van Winkle and William C. O'Connor---set up shop.  The Southern California Panama Expositions Commission reported in 1914, the Huntington Beach broom factory employed fourteen people with an annual production of $180,000.   

   Van Winkle and O'Connor planted four acres of broom corn (sorghum) near their factory to see if it would grow in Huntington Beach, to save shipping it from the east.  In New York, broom corn was selling for as much as $280 per ton, also prompting Northern California farmers to try their hand at growing broom corn.

Left: One of the Rube Goldberg binding and sewing contraptions that helped automate broom making, circa 1917.  With this equipment, it was possible to turn out 50 to 100 brooms per day.  (Image, Brooms, Brushes & Handles, Vol. 20, 1917)

   By 1917, 53-year-old Hezekiah Thompson retired from the broom business; his partner H.A. Bowman bought out his interests and continued to run the broom factory.   

   Reviewing an industry magazine that same year, Brooms,Brushes & Handles (1917), there are reports on broom production in various parts of the country, and countless advertisements for broom handles--from bamboo to maple--broom machinery, and broom corn for shipment.  Manufacturers worried about broom corn shortages and labor shortages due to World War I.

   Also by this time, portable vacuums were becoming more widely available.  The earlier versions of the vacuum were large machines, carted on wagons and parked outside a house, with vacuum hoses running into the home's windows from the street.  Cleaning the house was an event that required planning.

An early newspaper feature, The Woman Behind the Broom, advises ladies how to protect their health and beauty while sweeping.  The first prototype of the portable vacuum was issued a patent in 1908, but it wouldn't be until 1919 that portable Hoover vacuums were found in more homes.  (Image, San Francisco Call, February 27, 1910)

   Early Orange County historian Samuel Armor reports in his 1921 History of Orange County that the Beach Broom Factory in Huntington Beach was producing $40,000 worth of product, the equivalent of over half a million dollars today.

A Huntington Beach broom factory near present-day Garfield Avenue, circa 1910.  Fire was always a concern with dry broom corn.  On February 4, 1918, the Huntington Beach Board of Trustees approved a resolution for the fire department to answer calls outside city limits, directing staff to send a copy of the resolution to the Pacific Broom Company.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

Tips for broom salesmen from Brooms, Brushes & Handles, Vol. 20, provided rules for physical, mental, moral, financial and social health. (Image, Brooms, Brushes & Handles, Vol. 20, 1917)

   The number of broom factories peaked nationwide around 1919 and their number continued to decline through the 1930s.  By the 1960s---when Huntington Beach lost its broom factory in a fire---the domestic broom business was declining due to synthetic broom bristles, imported brooms, and the vacuum.

In the early 1960s, Huntington Beach still enjoyed a good broom, the local Lions Club selling them as a fundraiser. Lions Clubs around the country continue the tradition of broom sales today. (Source: City of Huntington Beach archives, City Council minutes, April 15, 1963)

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1 comment:

  1. Great story! How many people knew the was a broom factory in HB! Thanks for the great posts!


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