I’d never heard this expression until a friend mentioned it a few weeks ago, but it’s obviously had a long history.
The phrase is an 18th-century idiom for a sham marriage or one of doubtful validity. The Marriage Act 1836 (Britain), which introduced civil marriage, was contemptuously referred to as the ‘Broomstick Marriage Act’ by those who felt that a marriage outside the Anglican church did not deserve legal recognition.
A professor of Warwick University points out that the word broomstick was used in the mid-18th century to mean “something ersatz, or lacking the authority its true equivalent might possess.” She suggests that because the expression broomstick (or sham) marriage was in circulation, folk etymology led to a belief that people must actually have once signified irregular marriage by jumping over a broom.
The earliest use of the phrase is in the 1764 English edition of a French work. The French text, describing an elopement, refers to the runaway couple hastily making a “marriage on the cross of the sword,” an expression the English translator freely rendered as “performed the marriage ceremony by leaping over a broomstick.”
The Westminster Magazine, 1774, also describes an elopement. A man who had taken his under-age bride off to France discovered it was as hard to arrange a legal marriage there as in England, but declined a suggestion that a French sexton might simply read the marriage service to the couple, saying, ”He had no inclination for a Broomstick-marriage.”
Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations contains a reference to a couple having been married “over the broomstick.” The ceremony is not portrayed, but the reference indicates that readers would have recognized this as referring to an informal, not a legally valid, agreement.
In Wales, Romani couples would get married by eloping, when they would “jump the broom,” or over a branch of flowering common broom or a besom made of broom. This ritual was practised into the 1900s.
In some African-American communities, marrying couples will end their ceremony by jumping over a broomstick, either together or separately. This practice is well attested as a marriage ceremony for slaves in the Southern United States in the 1840s and 1850s who were often not permitted to wed legally. Its revival in 20th century African-American culture is due to the novel and miniseries Roots (1976, 1977).
There have been a few speculations that the custom may have origins in West Africa, but there is no direct evidence for this, although there is a custom of Ghana where brooms were waved above the heads of newlyweds and their parents. Among southern Africans, who were largely not a part of the Atlantic slave trade, it represented the wife’s commitment to clean the courtyard of the new home she had joined.
American singer-songwriter, Brenda Lee, released the rockabilly song “Let’s Jump the Broomstick” on Decca Records in 1959. Via its association with Wales and the popular association of the broom with witches, the custom has also been adopted by some Wiccans.
I guess these days young couples who haven’t been legally wed would have to jump the vacuum cleaner.