A Tisket a Tasket, You Ought to Use a Basket!

By Marilyn Hess

Baskets of various kinds can be seen being used in Old English Cuts and Illustrations, a collection of 18th-century cuts by Bowles and Carver (Dover Publications, Inc. New York, 1970) and many other books. They were used for storage and working equipment as well as carrying.

The British were known since Roman times for their basket-making skills and brought the rib-type construction from Europe. They introduced this construction to the Indians of North America. The Indians used baskets for everything from seed beaters to armor. They made snowshoes of hexagonal weave and nests of rectangular baskets to hold their clothes. The eastern Cherokees made waterproof baskets of river cane that was double-woven and coated with beeswax (G). Germans made coiled baskets of rye straw, wheat, rushes or even wire grass and sewed them with strands or spits of hickory or oak. The rye straw basket was used for bread raising, keeping sliced, dried apples and beehives as mice refused to eat through the baskets. They used large covered hampers to hold clothing and food. African Americans in the South made baskets by coiled sweet grass while the Southern Indians used split cane.

Materials that would be correct for the late 18th-century would be as follows:

  • Split wood, such as black ash, white oak, hickory, maple, and willow (Salix Purpurea -- native to Europe).
  • Rods of any of the above woods.
  • Handles made of splints, carved wood, or a group of twisted twigs or stems.
  • Sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata), rye straw, wheat, rush, etc.

    Things that you should stay away from are Honeysuckle as a material, Nantucket Lightship baskets, cane or rattan from palm trees grown in India and the Philippines, bamboo from the Orient, Raffia from Madagascar and Shaker type baskets. Decorative curls on baskets didn't start until 1860.

    The type of weaving done on the basket should be of the rib type, wicker (willow and Blackberry canes are often used in wickerwork), plaited splint, twill weave, twill and hexagonal plaiting, twining and coiling. The easiest basket to make is the square shape, then round, with oval being the most difficult. The bottom can be punched in to create a dome for spreading out the load to the outside of the basket where it is the strongest The handles can swell to a greater thickness in the center and also be short to just fit on your elbow. Most Indian baskets are flat- bottomed.

    Names of baskets often expressed their uses. Here are some of the ones appropriate for our use:

  • Egg basket (B = Known in Scotland as an Ose basket or Skye basket).
  • Sewing basket (F = also mending or darning basket, often with a lid and sometimes with handles).
  • Goose basket (C = egg-shaped, most often no handles, deep enough to hold head, neck and shoulders of the bird).
  • Bobbin Basket (with a stepped backplate for the loom post -- perfect for attaching to your tent post for holding personal effects).
  • Feather basket (cover slides up on handle so you can raise it with the side of the hand as you stuff a fistful of feathers into it).
  • Storage hamper
  • Grain basket (Long, rigid handles, oval-plaited splint basket)
  • Pack basket (wicker weave, worn on back and held in place by straps that sling over the shoulders).
  • Equine pack (14"-20" across back, flat-backed, attached to wood).
  • Potato basket (round bottomed)
  • Apple basket (handles to hang from waist while picking)
  • Peach basket (flared sides)
  • Melon Basket (Indian method is canoe-shaped)
  • Agricultural baskets
  • House baskets
  • Carrying baskets (designed for carrying weight over long distances -- low center of gravity, heavy handles that fit the hand).
  • Large, round baskets (cylindrical in form -- were often used with yokes).

    Now, after all this don't you think you need a basket for storage rather than a heavy box? Baskets are light, practical and sturdy yet adaptable.

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    SOURCES (and for further study ): The Pennsylvania German Collection, Beatrice B. Garvan, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Handbooks in American Art #2, 1982 (pages 253-257)

    Early American Antique Country Furnishings, Northeastern America, 1650-1800, George Neumann, McGraw Hill, 1984, (pages 219-220)

    After the Revolution, The Smithsonian History of Everyday Life in the 18th Century, Barbara Clark Smith, Pantheon Books, Random House, 1985, National Museum of American History, New York (pages 100-101)

    The Baskets of Rural America, Gloria Roth Teleki, E. Dutton and Company, Inc., New York, 1975

    Seneca Splint Basketry, M. Lismer, Iroqrafts, Ltd., Iroquois Publications, 1982

    Antique Baskets and Basketry, A Collector's Guide, Francis Thompson, South Brunswick, New York, A. S. Barnes & Co., 1977 Collecting Traditional American Basketry, Gloria Roth Teleki, E. Dutton, New York, 1979

    Basketry of the Appalachian Mountains, Sue H. Stephenson, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, Cincinnati, Toronto, London, Melbourne, 1977