Native American ash splint baskets have long been appreciated for their utilitarian and decorative qualities. Back before it was easy to mail-order goods from afar, people relied on what was locally produced or available in their hometown stores. Families lucky enough to live in regions where Native Americans made and sold baskets typically had all sizes, shapes and types of baskets put to various uses in their homes.
In my (KH) childhood home in northern Maine we had many baskets made by local Maliseets and Mi’kmaqs, as well as some Penobscot and Passamaquoddy baskets made on reserves south of our town. A large, strong-handled, thick-splint “potato-picking” basket held garden tools in our shed; a tall oval, handled basket with sweet grass trim held tins of mink oil and bottles of shoe polish in the back hallway; a delicate, two-tiered round picnic basket sat high on a shelf in the kitchen closet; and a lidded, low, round, fine-splint basket held ribbon and other sewing notions. One of my first purchases with babysitting money as a young teen was a “fancy basket” with rose and indigo colored splints which eventually became a cherished reminder of home in my college dorm room.
Basket-making is still a vibrant Native American craft in northern Maine, but the three baskets we have just acquired are much earlier examples from the mid-19th century. While in an excellent state of preservation, these three Penobscot baskets date to circa 1850-60, which was prior to the widespread use of decorative techniques such as twisting splints into conical points (called the porcupine technique) and adorning edges with braided sweet grass.
This tall, lidded storage basket has wide splints alternating with bands of fine splints. The two Penobscot baskets shown below are very similar in style, although not as tall, and also date from 1850-60.
In addition to its large size, another striking feature of this basket is its multi-color splints. While the standards or warp (vertical splints) are blue and russet, the weavers or weft (horizontal splints) include yellow and green along with blue and russet.
Before the horizontal splints were woven into the body of the basket, color was applied to both the warp and weft splints with a cloth swab or soft brush dipped into a stain made from powdered pigments or cakes of watercolor paints (McMullen & Handsman, 1987). The color appears only on the exterior of the splints (with some interior edge leakage around the sides of the narrow splints). In later baskets whose splints were soaked in vats of aniline dyes, both the exterior and interior of the splints were richly colored.
In a swabbed basket the bottom was left uncolored.
In this tall basket the lid was also left its natural color. Ash splints are quite pale when freshly woven, but they darken to a golden beige with exposure to light and air over time.