History of sweetgrass baskets in the United States.

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During the days of slavery, rice cultivation and the flourishing plantations of the Old South, these baskets were in great demand for agricultural purposes. They also brought extra income to slave owners, who often sold baskets to other plantation owners.

During this era, large work baskets were popular. For the most part, they were used to collect and store vegetables, staples, etc. Men made these large baskets from marsh grasses called bulrush. A common form to evolve during this era was the winnowing basket (rice basket) called the "fanner". Other agricultural baskets were for grain storage, cotton, fish and shellfish.

Functional baskets for everyday living in the home were made by women. Some of these were made for bread, fruits, sewing, clothes, storage, etc. They were made from the softer, pliable grass commonly called sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes), because of its pleasant fragrance, similar to the smell of fresh hay.

With the decline of the plantation system, black families acquired land and started a new way of life. Because they felt that this basketmaking tradition was an important part of their cultural heritage, and that future generations would be able to retain on identity with Africa through the baskets, they kept the tradition alive. The tradition remains very much alive today. For generations, it has been passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the Lowcountry nearly lost this valuable art. However, in the 1930s, basket makers saw a new surge of interest from gift shop owners, museums, and hand-craft collectors. The paving of Highway 17 North and the construction of the Cooper River Bridge made the route through Mount Pleasant a major north-south artery. Basket makers then started marketing their wares from a new invention, the roadside basket stand, which was directly accessible to tourists.

Basketmaking has always involved the entire family. As was the custom, man and boys gathered the materials, while women and girls "sewed" the baskets. This custom continues today; however, in some instances, all members of the family are engaged in both the gathering of the materials and the making of the baskets. Rigorous craftsmanship and long hours of work ate involved in making these baskets. Even, for the most part experienced basketmaker, a simple design can take as long as 12 hours. A larger more complex design can take as long as two to three months.

Family members have always enjoyed close cooperation in marketing their work. It is quite common to find work belonging to several members of a family on the same basket stand. It is usually these stands that display a very wide selection of baskets.

Today most basket stands are still built along the shoulder of Highway 17 North. Once a small, residential community outside of Charleston, Mount Pleasant has become the sixth largest city in South Carolina. This, for the most part, is due to large-scale planned development. With this massive growth, basket stands - a part of the community for over half a century - have dwindled tremendously in number. Within the past 10 years, development has forced many basket stands to relocate farther north. This is a grave problem which basketmakers face today.

Another serious problem confronting the basketmakers of Mount Pleasant is the dramatic decline in sweetgrass materials due to private development of our coastal islands and marshlands. Constant search for these materials has taken basketmakers to other areas outside the community from North Carolina to Florida. Mount Pleasant basketmakers depend on open access to these materials of their art is to continue. Increased public interest is needed to ensure the future of this Lowcountry tradition.

Investment Value:

In continuous production since the 18th century, Lowcountry coil basketry is one of the oldest crafts of African origin in America. Today baskets are purchased by museums and art collectors throughout the world, such as the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. Each basket reflects the artists skill as both designer and technician. A basket's value increases with age and with proper care will last indefinitely. Examples of Lowcountry coil basketry exist that are well over a century old.

Materials Used In Basket Making:

  • Sweetgrass
  • Bulrush
  • Long Leaf Pine Needles
  • Palmetto Leaves

Basket Care:

Because the grasses used in these baskets are from swamps and marsh areas, water will not hurt them. With a soft brush or cloth, they can be carefully washed in soapy water and rinsed thoroughly in cold water. They should then be air dried. This is the only care they require.

More detailed information can be found in:

  • Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry, by Dale Rosengarten, 1986.
  • Proceedings of the Sweetgrass Conference, March 26, 1988.

Both publications are available from the McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC

All information in the History, Investment, Materials and Basket Care Sections of this page are excerpts from a publication funded by: The Mount Pleasant Town Council, S.C. Dept. of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
Text by: Marguerite S. Middleton and Mary A. Jackson

Visit the Town of Mount Pleasant Web Site at: www.scad.com/mtpleasant

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