Collecting Miniature or Small Baskets
Baskets are an antique staple included in many country decorated homes and collections. Sometimes, it is mistakenly thought that basket making was learned from the Native American, but in fact basket makers were common in Europe and the Far East long before settlers in America. There was an exchange of techniques and style that can sometimes make it difficult to determine the original of a basket.
Miniature or small baskets are typically 6” or smaller. The miniature ones are exact copies of larger versions but there are baskets that were made uniquely small, such as thimble holders. Generally, baskets were made of splint, willow and straw. But small baskets were made of any material that could be woven including horse hair, fine grass, human hair and pine needles. A large percentage of the surviving antique baskets were made of splint – flat strips of oak, ash, hickory or poplar. Splint produced by hand is relatively thick (vs. machine-cut into extremely thin pieces) and lacks uniformity with different width strips. Machines to cut splint became available in the 1880s which then allowed more baskets to be made with greater uniformity. Most splint basketry was made with strips woven across each other at right angles, creating a checkerboard surface. Less common are baskets made in a hexagonal or open weave. The Shakers were known for making miniature splint baskets in their communities in New England and New York. While the “Eastern Woodland Indians" (tribes that lived east of the Plains Indians and reached from Maryland, to the Great Lakes, and up into Maine) are also known for small splint baskets.
Straw baskets were not woven but were sewed in long strips and then coiled. Each successive round of straw was bound to the developing basket by pieces of grass, thread or string which tended to limit the style to round or oval shapes. Most often these coiled baskets are associated with Native Americans. They are likely the oldest baskets made by man – the Pima and Papago tribes of the Southwest have possibly been making these baskets since 6000 BC. The German settlers of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland also made these baskets – typically from rye.
Willow baskets were made from slim shoots of the supple willow tree and tend to be more durable than splint. They are mentioned in eighteenth century inventories but their greatest period of use was in the 1870s and 1880s. Variations of the crosshatch weave are most common in willow baskets but other weaves were also used.
Small baskets were generally made by skilled basket makers for children, for the tourist trade, to hold small things and even just because they were pretty. Many were used as berry picking baskets. Most small baskets, like their larger counterparts, were unmarked, unpainted and undecorated. Baskets in good condition, with minimal breakage and in original paint are highly sought after. Miniature and small baskets are easy to display taking up a lot less space than their counterparts and the workmanship in these small treasures can be incredible.
Search for baskets on Dig Antiques.
Here are a few interesting online and book references on baskets:
- The Basket Collectors Book, Lew Larason, Scorpio Publications, 1978.
- New and Revised Catalog of American Antiques, William C. Ketchum, Jr., Gallery Books, 1984.
- Baskets 3ED, Nancy Schiffer, Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2007.
- Shaker Baskets: Tips on Collecting, The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles, January 2004.
- How to Identify Antique Baskets, Linda Stamberger, eHow Contributor, May 2010.
- Nipmuc Splint Basketry, Native American Technology & Art website.