Penobscot Ash Splint Baskets
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.
None of the splints for this medium-sized lidded basket were ever colored, so the whole basket has the aged patina of natural ash. This basket is a shorter variant of the tall lidded basket, also having wide weavers alternating with bands of multiple fine-gauge weavers. A similar Penobscot covered storage basket, circa 1860, that is in the Abbe Museum is shown below.
The bottom of the basket shows the strong splints that were bent upward to become the vertical standards. These were made with thicker splints than the side weavers. Pulling an ash splint one or more times through a wooden frame or “splitter” held between the knees allowed basket makers to adjust the thickness of the splints they needed.
The lid was woven in the same technique as the body of the basket, but with thinner standards and many fine weavers. This weaving style produces a characteristic dip in the center of the lid.
The pairs of handles on all three baskets were shaped from ash.
The third basket differs from the other two in that it is an open, tray-shaped basket. During the mid-19th century, tray baskets were commonly used on closet shelves and in clothes presses (Eckstorm, 1932). Its basic construction is the same as the lidded storage baskets, however, with sturdy vertical standards and fine horizontal weavers.
This basket has more fine-gauge weavers than the storage baskets, and only one wide, green weaver which forms a ribbon-like band near the top of the basket that contrasts with the indigo uprights. Varying the width, color and number of wide and fine splints gave basket makers many decorative options.
A view of the bottom of the basket from the interior shows how the multiple layers of standards form a peaked dome in the center. The ash edge bands with splint wrapping are also visible in this unlidded basket.
The carved ash handles on this basket are secured through the rim and woven within the interior of the basket for stability. They are notched so that when lifted they catch on the rim rather than pull through. The structure of these handles indicate that the tray was intended to be carried when full, whereas the handles of the large storage baskets are more decorative than functional.
In 1932 the historian Fannie Hardy Eckstorm wrote about early Maine basketry: “The Penobscot Indians excelled in basketry. Their work had a structural strength, a superiority of workmanship and a vigor of color and design which makes old specimens arresting and satisfying.” These three baskets are certainly deserving of her accolades.
Calloway, D. G., (1989) The Abenaki. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.
Eckstorm, F. H. (1932) The Handicrafts of the Modern Indians of Maine. Reprinted in 1980 by The Robert Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor, Maine.
McMullen, A. & Handsman, R. G. (Eds.) (1987) A Key into the Language of Woodsplint Baskets. American Indian Archaeological Institute, Washington, CT.