Journal

Native American Basket Forms

07.07.2014

Native American basket molds

These intriguing sculptural objects are Native American basket-making tools. Specifically, they are forms around which ash splint “fancy baskets” were woven. They turned up recently in Maine, where they would have been owned and used by a Penobscot or Passamaquoddy basket maker during the early 1900s.

Native Americans in Maine have made ash splint baskets for over two hundred years.* During the 18th and 19th centuries, men made rugged work baskets with thick, wide ash splints, and traveled to towns as itinerant peddlers to sell the baskets. Indian families also made covered storage baskets and handled gathering baskets with finer, dyed splints for their own use as well as for sale.

But beginning in the 1870s when developers were building seaside and lakeside lodges, inns and resorts to attract rusticators from urban areas outside of Maine, a whole new market and means of selling opened up for Maine’s Native American craftspeople. Whereas formerly they would have to travel from town to town to sell their wares, basket makers now settled into summer Indian encampments near the new resort areas where potential customers congregated, joining families from other tribes and reservations.

Maine Indian encampment

Maine Indian encampment near Bar Harbor in 1889 (Maine Historic Preservation Commission photo)

They would arrive with a stockpile of crafts that they had made all winter, as well as with raw materials such as ash splint for making crafts to sell all summer.

During these years the tribes readily adapted their crafts to the Victorian tastes of well-to-do rusticators, ushering in the era of “fancy basket” making. Distinct from utilitarian ash splint baskets made by men which had previously been the mainstay of the Indian basket trade, the fancy baskets were typically made by women and were small, lightweight, intricate and extremely varied in form.

The women expertly rendered ash splint versions of popular Victorian goods that were made of leather, wood, ceramic or sliver, such as glove boxes, collar boxes, sewing baskets, scissors cases, candy trays, napkin rings, comb boxes and wall pockets. To suit the tastes of their customers, these objects were adorned with embellishments such as sweet grass and colorfully dyed, thin splint curlicues.

Penobscot fancy baskets

Penobscot fancy baskets: button basket, scissors case, glove box (Hudson Museum, University of Maine)

Tools to Facilitate Production

Producing uniform fancy baskets in great numbers for the tourist trade required two essential tools:  basket gauges and basket forms. Basket gauges are wooden hand tools with cutting edges (often razor blades) set at measured intervals for slicing strands of ash splint into regular sizes. Whereas the wider, rougher splints of work baskets were typically hand cut with a knife, basket gauges made it possible to efficiently make a stock of evenly-sized splints of narrow widths for fancy baskets.

Indian basket gauges

Basket gauges (Cherry Gallery sold archives)

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