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Scheper Store Building, Town of Port Royal
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Weaver doll beside a new sweetgrass basket. Colorful Penn Center Heritage Days poster features a painting of women in African dress
Weaver doll beside
a new sweetgrass baske
t
Photo by Dennis Adams

Sweetgrass Baskets
by
Dennis Adams
Information Services Coordinator, 2007
Edited by Grace Morris Cordial, 2012


St. Helena Baskets
:
Types and Prices of 1924

Sweetgrass Baskets in the Lowcountry

Though the traditions are ancient, sweetgrass baskets are a recent development in our Sea Islander communities -- as we learn in Dale Rosengarten’s book, Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry.

Coiled, handmade baskets of sweetgrass (sewn with longleaf pine needles and strips of palmetto leaf) command good prices at roadside stands or on the City Market and streets of Charleston. Enslaved people had been making coiled baskets (an African technique different from the European weave) since the late 1600s, and the Sea Island baskets are related to those of Angola, Senegambia, and the Congo.

The most common material used to be black rush (a marsh grass) bound with strips of white oak or saw palmetto stem. Sweetgrass became popular only at the beginning of the twentieth century, when a black community in Mount Pleasant (across the Cooper River from Charleston) began making "show baskets" from the material. These baskets provided much-needed income in the aftermath of hurricanes and boll weevil infestation. Tourists bought so many baskets that sweetgrass won out over more traditional varieties.

Traditional sweetgrass basket with lid. The method involves coils of sweetgrass and pinestraw instead of European weaving

 

Sweetgrass basket purchased in the Charleston Market in the 1970s
(By courtesy of Virginia Adams)
Photo by Dennis Adams

"Sweetgrass ( Muhlenbergia filipes) … is a long-stemmed plant that grows in tufts behind the second dune line from the ocaean or along the boundaries between marsh and woods," wrote Rosengarten. "Here, salt-tolerant trees and shrubs have pinned down the sand and stopped it from shifting, creating a stable barrier from tidal flooding." Sweetgrass is "prized" by the Mount Pleasant sewer system for its flood-controlling qualities.

On St. Helena Island , however, rush work baskets continued into the first half of the twentieth century. Though the Penn School offered training in "Native Island Basketry" for fifty years, today black rush is used mainly to strengthen and decorate certain types of sweetgrass baskets.

The early rice industry in the Lowcountry owed its success to a particular type of black rush basket, the "fanner". Slaves "fanned" threshed rice into the air from the baskets to let the wind separate the chaff. On the plantations, the male slaves wove fences, granaries, traps, and heavy field baskets. It was up to the women to make the smaller, fancier baskets for the households.

Avery Research Center, College of Charleston, is home to a massive sweet-grass basket collection.  The Lowcountry Digital Library makes it possible to view forty-two images of baskets from Avery's archives online using the following link: http://bit.ly/Tsnc7x.

 

African Origins

Margaret Casey, in The Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara, describes two basic methods of basketry and mat making used on the content of Africa well before slaves came to America. The first of the Old-World methods is plaiting, where braids of wood strips, reeds, grasses or roots are twined or twilled into many different patterns. But it is from the second method that our local sweetgrass baskets descend: "sewn basketry, often called coil-sewn, involves a thin continuous foundation, usually of grass, which is sewn spirally on itself, using split palm leaf, raffia, or similar fiber. Some baskets are so tightly sewn that they can be used for containers of liquid, being watertight when the fibers have swelled. Other sewn basketry may have the foundation elements plaited or lying in parallel rows , sewn together and then sewn to the rest of the basket."

In Africa, a basket can be more than just a basket. Other daily uses include roof and wall framework, fish and animal traps, beer strainers, flour sifters, clothing and hats (including ceremonial headdresses and crowns), and dance masks.

The 1924 Penn Center annual report lists the selection and prices of the "St. Helena baskets" of the time. The 1924 price appears first for each item, followed by the estimated present-day (2005) value in parentheses:

St. Helena Baskets:
Types and Prices (1924)

 

Type of Basket


Prices (1924 with 2005 values)
Scrap baskets, about 10" x 13 ":

$2.50 ($27.13 in 2005 buying power)
Scrap baskets, about 12" x 16":

$3.25 ($35.27)
Wood baskets, about 16" x 24":

$6.50 ($70.54)
Rice fanners (trays), about 2" x 18":

$2.50 ($27.13)
Lunch baskets:

$2.50 ($27.13)
Clothes-hampers:

$10.00 to $12.50 ($108.52 to $135.65)
Table mats, 6 inch set:

Per set $3.00 ($32.56)
Covered sewing baskets, about 8" across top:

$2.00 ($21.70)
Corn shuck door mats:

80 ($8.68)

Recommended Reading about Sweet-grass Baskets:

746.412 COA Sweetgrass baskets and the Gullah tradition by Joyce V. Coakley. Arcadia Publishing, 2005. (BDC, Local History sections)

746.412 ROS Row upon Row: sea grass baskets of the Lowcountry by Dale Rosengarten. McKissick Museum, 1986.  (BDC, STH Gullah-Geechee Room, Local History sections)

J E BEL Beauty, her basket by Sandra Belton; illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera. Greenwillow Books/ Amistad, 2004. (Children's Picture Books at the Branch Libraries)

E RAV Circle unbroken: the story of a basket and its people by Margot Theis Raven; pictures by E.B. Lewis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. (Children's Picture Books at the Branch Libraries)

Sweet-Grass Baskets [BDC vertical file] contains clippings of articles about traditional lowcountry coiled basket making.

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