What in the world are the women in this photograph doing?

Young women practicing their broom maneuvers. Pictured (not in order): Harriet “Hattie” Powell (Peggy Quaid’s great grandmother), Grace Monroe, Minnie Gates, Maggie Arthur, Marnie Conway, Mary Bowlin, Miss Reed, Sutie Howins, Anna Westover, Lily Kimball, Miss Sawyer, Estell Taylor, Rose Purcell. (Photo courtesy of Peggy Quaid, Kelley House Museum)

This is one of four curious pictures presented to the Kelley House Museum by our good friend, Peggy Quaid. They preserve for us an unusual pastime – “The Broom Brigade.” (Notice the letters “BB” wrapped around the broom held by Miss Grace Monroe.)

Prevalent during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the BB was an “comical amusement” (in contrast to “tragical”) that was performed at church socials and other community fund-raising events. This entertainment was so popular across the country that several books were published describing a great variety of drill formations, and music was especially written for them. 

One of the earliest books was called “Broom Tactics, or Calisthenics in a New Form for Young Ladies,” by Lt. Hugh T. Reed. The title of this 1883 publication indicates another aspect of these marching drills, beyond just amusement. Because public displays of womanly athleticism were not common, the drills were embraced as early forms of physical education in an era of rising feminine empowerment. 

Mendocino County participated in this national trend. A well-attended broom performance in Ukiah was described in an 1882 edition of the Mendocino Dispatch Democrat newspaper, reporting that “the warlike appearance which the ladies will assume for the occasion may possibly have a tendency to keep the wild savages and tyrants of their several households in subjection thereafter.” 

Mendocino City’s 1887 July 4th celebration included the Girls’ Broom Brigade, appearing along with a full program of sports, games, oration, fireworks, and marching bands. In 1890, the Beacon announced that, “The ladies of Fort Bragg have taken hold of the matter of raising funds for the purpose of procuring a flag for the public school and will give a broom parade for that purpose. When ladies take an interest in possibilities, success is sure to follow.” Amen, Sister.

Further up the coast, a correspondent described this event in 1889: 

While sojourning at Westport, it was my good fortune to attend the church entertainment given there last Saturday evening. The singing and recitation were rendered in good style, but the feature of the evening was the ladies’ broom parade, headed by Miss Stanford, giving the different commands in such a soldierly way that one would be led to believe that the lady had been in the military service for years. At the command of “Fire!” the aim was taken which was true; and I am sure there were many wounded hearts among the young men, as the ammunition was the bewitching eyes of the ladies. The dress was magnificent–white dresses with red cross bars on the breast and red caps. The broom had a wide band of red with the initials of each soldier beautifully worked on it. After going through the drill, the company marched on the stage, and represented in a tableau, “Tenting on the Old Campground.” There was a tent erected, and a campfire, and the company all gathered around the fire to sing, presenting a beautiful appearance.

No doubt, drill teams entertaining us at today’s sporting events owe something to these early-day ladies marching in formation and flourishing their dust cloths and brooms.