Sesquicentennial Series: The Charge of the Broom Brigade
LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 31, 2012) — In celebration of the University of Kentucky's upcoming sesquicentennial in 2015, the 21st of 150 weekly installments on the university remembers the institution's own broom brigade.
Broom brigades were women’s organizations that spread throughout the United States during the 1880s. Mark Twain observed in his 1883 book "Life on the Mississippi" that "in the West and South they have a new institution — the Broom Brigade. It is composed of young ladies who dress in a uniform costume, and go through the infantry drill, with broom in place of musket." He described the broom brigade of New Orleans: "I saw them go through their complex manual with grace, spirit, and admirable precision. I saw them do everything which a human being can possibly do with a broom, except sweep."
The institution's broom brigade would drill with brooms as the cadets did with guns. In the post-Civil War era, military drill was a popular form of exercise, and judged drill competitions between rival college battalions was entertainment. It is speculated that in many broom brigades across the country, that it wasn’t the chance to play with guns that inspired the coeds as much as to get some exercise — and to be able to do the same thing that men were doing.
In an ad for The Broom Drill, Broom Brigade Tactics, for Exhibitions, Roller Rinks, Social Clubs and Church Entertainments the phenomenon is described as the most "novel, attractive and entertaining exhibition of graceful military movements, performed by young ladies….Easy to learn, and a profitable exercise."
Both domestic in nature, in their choice of using brooms, but also an expression of equality the broom brigades were an indication of the changing role of women in society.
This story on UK's history is presented by UK Special Collections. Special Collections is home to UK Libraries' collection of rare books, Kentuckiana, the Archives, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, the King Library Press and the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center. The mission of Special Collections is to locate and preserve materials documenting the social, cultural, economic and political history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
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