It’s easy to make the case for baskets. After all, they are one of humankind’s earliest containers, dating back some 10,000 years. Baskets were first used to gather fruit and seeds, to winnow grain, to prepare food for cooking, and even to carry water. Later, baskets were fashioned to hold freshly caught flopping fish, the ingredients for a summer picnic, sewing tools, waste paper, and dirty clothes.
Baskets are made from simple ingredients, usually nothing more than a combination of sticks and grass, which is why they were developed by pre-industrial societies, whether they were produced in the pre-Columbian Americas or Asia and Africa. Native American baskets hold a particular appeal for collectors, although most of the baskets they are drawn to were created in the late 1800s and early 1900s specifically for the tourist trade. Still, these are no ordinary souvenirs—some weavers, which is essentially what basketmakers were, would spend more than a year on a single piece.
In the United States, collectible baskets include those made in the 19th century by sailors stationed for long tours of duty aboard the various Nantucket lightships, which were anchored along the coast of Massachusetts to keep whaling boats from running aground on the Nantucket Shoals. The baskets the sailors made were generally woven from rattan over an armature of oak or hickory in graduated sizes so that they nested inside one another.
Another basket borne of necessity is the goose basket, which takes its name not from its shape but its purpose. The basket was put over the head of a goose as its feathers were being plucked for down comforters and pillows, to prevent the plucker from being savagely pecked by the perturbed bird.
Other popular American baskets from the same century include those made by the Shakers, who reportedly learned many of their techniques from the Algonquin natives living in what is now New York. The Shakers relied on plentiful and pliable black ash to form basket styles like the spoon, cat head, and kitten.
While many Native American tribes were known for their coiled baskets, the simplest techniques were wickerwork, twining, and plaiting. Wickerwork, which is sometimes referred to as “in and out,” is the most basic basket weave, in which horizontal fibers of willow, ash, or oak are woven over and under vertical “spokes,” which radiate from the bottom of the basket. Twining is similar to wickerwork, except the horizontal pieces are woven in pairs, one going under and the other going over each spoke, for a tighter weave. Plaiting, or checkerwork, is a basic type of uniformly over-and-under weave whose horizontal and vertical fibers are of the same weight and size. Twill plaiting, also called twillwork, varies the spacing of the horizontal “overs” and “unders” to create diagonal patterns in a basket’s weave.
Among the companies that made names for themselves in the basket game are Princess and Harvey, which excelled at sewing baskets, and Longaberger, which makes all manner of baskets to this day. In American offices prior to World War I, wicker baskets made of plaited lengths of willow or osier were imported from the “Thueringer Forests” of Germany. During and after the war, willow weavers in Baltimore took over this trade and wove themselves an industry, despite the fact that many office workers routinely tossed their cigars into these flammable containers, occasionally producing fires that reduced whole buildings to ashes. No wonder that by 1914, the Metal Office Furniture Company had patented a fireproof waste basket called the Victor. Still, even though it was made of steel, the basket was painted to resemble wood.