Acton Institute Powerblog

The broom prophet: Lessons from a craftsman on sanctified work

(Photo credit: caligula1995 (CC BY 2.0)

Throughout its history, the American economy has transitioned from agrarian to industrial to information-driven. In turn, “work with the hands” has become less and less common, replaced by widespread automation and a host of intangible services.

Meanwhile, a quiet resurgence in craftsmanship has begun, whether one looks to the massive online marketplaces for handmade goods or the diverse range of specialized artisans who continue to find niches in a globalized economy.

Take Jack Martin, owner of Hockaday Handmade Brooms, who still prides himself on making “one broom at a time,” each made from home-grown broomcorn on his land in McNairy County, Tennessee. For Martin, making brooms isn’t just about a return to quality or offering a localist alternative to the mass-produced broom at the nearest big-box store. It’s about something a bit more mystical and sacred.

In a profile of Martin and his business, writer Shawn Pitts detected a palpable reverence for the broom itself, labeling Martin a “broom prophet” of sorts, whose personality is akin to John the Immerser and whose product falls within a long tradition of southern folklore and superstition.

In the hands of Jack Martin…a broom is an objet d’art, born of the earth and handcrafted with elegant simplicity into a talisman worthy of veneration. Whether displayed for its exceptional beauty and quality — or used to sweep out the garage — an encounter with one of Martin’s brooms often sparks something like enchantment. It’s hard to reckon with such feelings — primal echoes from the past, perhaps.

The object itself proclaims its agricultural heritage. The bristles are made of natural broomcorn, cultivated in sight of the shop where Martin crafts his brooms, while handles are often cut from young timber nearby — living sacrifices to a down-home Demeter, the good goddess of Southern field and forest. And then, there is the mystery of the thing itself, how its intended function — to clean — seems to breathe symbolic life into each broom.

It’s easy to see how our forebears concluded there was something more than sweeping afoot.

As the result of a family business that began over a century ago, Martin’s brooms have been widely recognized for their artistry, a fact that might lead some to dismiss them as mere museum pieces. For Martin, however, the meaning comes alive in their function and use. The glory and beauty of the broom is found, ultimately, in the labor.

“Every step of the process, from selecting and planting the seeds, to harvesting and combing the broomcorn, to wiring it onto the handle and sewing it into the familiar fan shape, is lovingly done by hand, with function in mind,” Pitts explains. “After all that, it seems a shame to hang it on the wall. A broom is sanctified in the sweeping.”

After presenting Martin with a range of southern superstitions about brooms and sweeping, Pitts asks about the source of it all. “Why all the spirituality and superstition surrounding brooms? Why do we project such power on them?”

“[Martin’s] answer was profound and painfully obvious,” Pitts writes. The mythology emerges from human intimacy with this ubiquitous object. Like the holy places on the earth, where divine life invades human space, objects are imbued with meaning from our experience of them. The details may be lost to antiquity, but the broom earned its place in our imagination, and we do well to pay it the honor it is due.”

For Martin, the material and the spiritual are deeply connected. The sacred emerges not only from the act of sweeping itself, but through the relationship between human and tool, labor and application, creativity and service.

There are no great riches in store for the slow-and-steady broom craftsman, and Martin seems satisfied nevertheless. As Pitts observes, “There is something satisfying about walking in the old paths, something solemn and sacred in the work of the hands.”

In beholding Martin’s comfort with his calling, one can’t help but be reminded of the famous line about street sweepers from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” In the speech, King notes the importance of our work, no matter how mundane, encouraging us to “set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it,” and to “set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.”

“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera,” King says. “Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.”

Working with one’s hands may make some of these realities easier to see and swallow, but the same lessons apply to the rest of us. No matter how intangible or fuzzy the value we create may seem or feel, we’d do well to recognize and embrace it.

No matter how fast our companies, products, and industries may move, there is likely more value than we think, if only we’d see it.

Image: caligula1995 (CC BY 2.0)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.