Native American Basket Forms
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.
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.
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.
Basket forms or molds, which were not typically used for weaving the large work baskets in earlier eras, also made it easier to produce small, finely woven baskets of uniform size and shape relatively quickly. The forms were either single blocks of shaped wood, such as the two we have acquired, or were made up of multiple pieces that could be pulled apart to remove the form from a finished basket whose opening was smaller than its body.
Although producing fancy baskets of entirely different shapes required different forms, baskets with slight variations could be produced with a single form. Our acorn basket mold for instance, could be used to make short or tall baskets, wall pockets, or embellished “strawberry” and “pine cone” baskets.
The second mold we have was most likely used to make an ash splint vase.
Both molds have permanent handles so that the mold could easily be pulled from the completed basket, since the mouth of these particular baskets would be wider than the bodies. While most blocks needed a handle for pulling them out of a finished basket, the handles were often just nails or drawer pulls attached to the mold, so the well-shaped, attached handle of the vase mold and the integral handle of the acorn mold make them not only more effective tools, but also more elaborate and interesting objects.
Both of these basket forms show evidence of use, including pin holes on the bottoms where splints were secured before the basket maker tied them to the mold, and remnants of red color transferred to the mold from moist, dyed ash splints.
The acorn mold also has the initials of its owner “NJ” carved in the top of the handle.
Origins and Preservation
It is not clear whether basket molds were an independent innovation of Indians as some anthropologists contend, or were adapted from non-Indian splint basket making traditions. Indian men working in mills and factories in Maine in the mid-to late-1800s would have been exposed to industrial molds, cutting tools and other labor-saving devices, which perhaps inspired their own innovations with basket making tools. But they may also have adopted tools and methods used by basket makers from other cultural groups. Shakers, for instance, made their poplar baskets around molds, and it is well established that there was contact between Shakers and Indians in Maine.
Regardless of who first invented basket making forms and gauges, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy basket makers in Maine used them well to produce thousands of exquisite baskets, as well as hundreds of innovative variations on the tools themselves.
This photograph shows a collection of 32 basket forms and 29 basket gauges that was acquired in its entirety by the Boston Children’s Museum in 1976. Basket tools do not appear on the market in great quantities, in part because they were typically passed down from one generation of basket makers in a family to the next. However, in the late 1930s a Kiowa man named Poolaw and his Penobscot wife Watawaso who ran a souvenir shop on Indian Island in Maine, acquired a number of basket forms and gauges from local Penobscot families. They then provided these tools, along with a work space and raw materials, to Penobscot women whom they paid by the piece to weave baskets for their shop. When Watawaso died, Poolaw sold their basket-making tools, which luckily were acquired by the Museum. The “Poolaw collection” thus preserves and documents one aspect of Penobscot material culture.
While antique Native American ash splint baskets are easily recognized as works of art, the early tools used to make the baskets provide the backstory of their creation, while being aesthetically pleasing objects in their own right.
*Background information and several images for this article are from the chapter “We didn’t make fancy baskets until we were discovered”: Fancy-basket making in Maine by Joan Lester, the former curator of Native American collections at the Boston Children’s Museum. In A Key into the Language of Woodsplint Baskets. (1987). Edited by Ann McMullen and Russell G. Handsman, American Indian Archaeological Institute, Washington, CT.