If you used a broom to sweep your Pittsburgh home during the 20th century, there is a chance it was made by the blind and visually impaired men and women of the Pittsburgh Blind Association (PBA). For nearly a century, the PBA provided training assistance, service clinics, rehabilitation sessions, and other programs to foster independent living skills among blind citizens throughout the community. One of the PBA’s most successful programs was a broom manufacturing operation, which provided employment to blind and visually impaired workers between 1910 and 2009.
Located on South Craig St. in Oakland, the PBA workshop employed anywhere from 50 to 200 workers at a time. The workshop relied heavily on its broom manufacturing, which produced everything from small whisk brooms to three-and-a-half pound rail switch sweepers. Often production was stimulated by government contracts, especially during times of war. A surge of blind workers, many taking the place of enlisted men, turned out pillow cases, mops, and brooms to aid the war effort during World War II. Likewise, broom making spiked during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Most frequent were sales to local Lions and Kiwanis Clubs or Allegheny County housewives associations. “Brooms made by the Blind” were promoted at special benefit sales at local Giant Eagle supermarkets and other participating businesses from the 1950s onward.
Blind and visually impaired workers weren’t limited to simply generating brooms, however. These able-bodied men and women operated lathes, sewing machinery, rotary machines, and hand tools to produce a variety of products. The workshop produced paintbrushes, tea towels, clothespin bags, aprons, ironing board covers, mops, and packaged industrial cleaning goods. Brooms and mops contracted through the Federal Government underwent rigorous inspections. Goods were then labeled with the designation “Skilcraft,” the tradename of the National Industries for the Blind (NIB). The NIB is a federally legislated organization providing employment opportunities for blind Americans. Mandates such as these generated high standards for all PBA products.
The blind and visually impaired workers of the PBA workshop were proud of their jobs- and quick to defend them. In 1954, a proposed salary cut combined with increased production demands caused broom-makers to call a strike, which lasted for five months before an agreement was reached. Heightened community awareness over the course of the next 20 years led to a $4.8 million dollar facility in 1977, where 55 different types of brooms and mops went into swift production.
In 2005, the PBA was renamed the Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh following a merger with the Greater Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind in Bridgeville, Pa. While broom making operations were discontinued in 2009, Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh continues to provide important employment and support services to the blind and visually impaired throughout Allegheny County.
The collection is one of the History Center’s “hidden collections” that has been processed as part of the NHPRC Basic Processing project that began in 2011. Click here to see the collection’s finding aid.