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 members of the 1888 Broom Brigade from left to right: unidentified woman; Minnie Moore (later a school teacher); Mrs. Ernest Cassity (Minnie’s sister); Sally Belle Baker; Mayme Combs; Elmer Allen; Kate Baker; Hattie Warner; Annie Baker, and Sallie Hornbrook. On the steps are: Mary Lou Baker; Vergie Hearne; and Joe Hearne. The 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 it 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.