The urge to create something beautiful from the commonest materials

Posted by | February 4, 2014

“It is a happy circumstance that the first showing of this traveling exhibition of the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild should be at the American County Life Association conference at Blacksburg, VA.  At the last conference of the Association held at Oglebay Park, WV, a special section of the program was given over to rural arts.

“There was so much interest in the subject that the Association asked the American Federation of the Arts if it would be possible to have for the convention in 1933 an exhibition of the hand work of rural people. The Federation had already begun the assembling of this exhibition of mountain handicrafts and this made it possible to show it at the Blacksburg meeting.

A Catalogue of Mountain Handicrafts Front Cover

A Catalogue of Mountain Handicrafts, Front Cover. 1933

“Every producing center in the Handicraft Guild is represented by some work, the range extending from the sometimes rough but useful things made by pioneer mountain people for their own use, such as brooms, settin’ chairs, baskets, and coverlets, to excellent examples of modern work in wood, metal and other materials, and weaving made largely for sale, some of it as fine as is done in any country today.  Thus it is hoped that the exhibition will help to encourage the continuation of the old crafts which are still useful and develop many others to meet the new day.

“Take, for instance, the collection of hearth brooms.  This is an indigenous product of the Highlands.  I have never seen a home, however humble, in these mountains that did not have at least one fireplace in it.  The hearth broom is made of broom straw grown at home or in the region, and tied usually with thongs of some native bark.  If a handle is attached it is of course of native wood.  Note what a variety of brooms this small collection contains.

“Here is the simplest one, from Allanstand Cottage Industries, consisting of a few wisps of broom straw tied together in this case with some white oak splits strong enough to serve the purpose, but without any special regard for their decorative effect.  But here is another broom, from near Gatlinburg, TN, done by “Broom Tying Richard,” in which in addition to a nicely twisted handle to hang it up by on a peg, or in these modern days, maybe a nail, the thongs of the inner bark of a tree, the pine I think, are a perfect binder for the broom straw.

Goode "Preacher" Hash & wife, Franklin, VA

Original caption by photographer Earle Palmer reads: Goode “Preacher” Hash, in addition to serving several Primitive Baptist Churches in Franklin, VA and environ counties, made hearth brooms to supplement his meagre income from preaching. Goode “Preacher” Hash gets some help from his wife of well over fifty years. In other words making hearth brooms was a family enterprise at the Hash’s.

“And what a nice design he has made of the dark brown knots against the light colored straw.  Do examine the crude but very interesting broom from Higgins, NC, done by an old man whose father and his father made brooms before him, how far back he cannot remember.  His broom tells convincingly of the urge to create something beautiful from the commonest materials, which is natural to all people unless sophistication crowds it out.

“He has tied his handful of broom straw around a wooden handle and on this handle he has left his mark.  Securing a piece of willow limb when the sap was up, as a boy making a whistle would do, he cut with his pocket knife two spiral-shaped lines parallel to each other all around the handle.  Then he peeled off the layer of bark which left a white line of the exposed portion.

“He had already made a brown dye of wild walnut hulls, and dipping his wooden broom handle into it he let it soak until the exposed white part had become a dark brown, then he took it out and let it dry.  After the dye had set he peeled off the remaining bark on the handle, which made a new white striped spiral parallel to and the same width as the first one, with the result that his broom handle is nicely decorated much like a barber pole, only the colors are different.

“It is quite a jump from this somewhat primitive, but to me attractively decorated handle, to the long round graceful orange color straw hearth broom perfectly shaped by a student at Berea College, with a handle of fine native walnut made by a boy in the woodworking shop.  Here is a broom good looking enough for any hearth in the land.

Berea College Student making brooms.  No date

Berea College Student making brooms. No date

“One may not be able to examine all the brooms and discover their features, all characteristic of the several places in which they are made, but one other broom is particularly interesting because of the handling of the straw.  At the John C. Campbell Folk School at Brasstown, NC, they raise their own broom straw, but they do not cut it until the seeds have developed and have become set.

“Then they harvest it carefully, allowing it to cure, and gather it in round bunches with the seeds all on the outside. This makes a broom of unusual beauty.  The straw is fastened with a colored string around a carefully whittled handle of native walnut left in its beautiful natural grey color, and sometimes they give you a nicely braided cord of homespun and hand-dyed woolen yarn tied through the handle to hang it up by.”

Excerpt from an essay in A Catalogue of Mountain Handicrafts: “The Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands,” by Allen Eaton of the Russell Sage Foundation, published by American Federation of the Arts, 1933

3 Responses

  • Janet Smart says:

    I think our ancestors were very talented at handcrafting items. I was told that my grandpa McMillion handcrafted cane chairs. I have a short handled broom that says it was made at Berea College in Ky. I think I got it at either a yard sale or thrift store. I’m not sure what kind of wood the handle was made from, I’ll have to ask my son, he’s a woodworker and he is good at figuring those kind of things out.

  • Denise Smith says:

    Thank you for this article. Love it!! My Great Grandfather Burress made the cane chairs and was also a blacksmith and made all sorts of tools. My grandmother made this rocking chair pin cushion out of a tin can. She gave it to me when I was a child and I am going to try to reproduce just one. My other grandmother is said to make the brooms and my Aunt had one for many years she had made.

  • […] Tabler: Just today I ran an article, “The Urge to Create Something Beautiful from the Commonest Materials” about how the hearth broom was lovingly crafted, and often passed down generation to generation. […]

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