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written by
Grahame Long

Culture in Coils

photographs by
Austin Nelson

Volume: 27

From the Miles Brewton House on King Street, an oval bassinet measuring almost three feet in length with
ten-inch-high walls demonstrates how elites appreciated these woven wares.

Watch Mildred Harrell’s hands at work for a few minutes. Her movements mimic those of her long-passed African ancestors and Carolina Lowcountry basket makers for more than three centuries now.

To be sure, basket style has changed over the years. The materials used are a bit different, and unlike the unadorned agrarian pieces of the once-enslaved American South, her finished works fetch upwards of several hundred dollars. There are no textbooks or videos that teach adequately what Mildred has been doing for fifty-seven years, her fingers hypnotically coiling and threading bunched sweetgrass strands into elegant, albeit painstaking, artworks because, simply put, “My grandmother taught me.”

On both sides of Meeting Street in downtown Charleston, just outside the Federal Courthouse gates, Mildred is one of at least seven others. And dozens more artisans like her sell wares around the city. Indeed, to watch their work is to watch, in an instant, the same skilled craftsmanship of an entire historic culture, one that, beginning in the early 1700s, arrived in Charleston not by choice, but as chained chattel.

These same baskets, now revered for their artistry, are a mere evolution of the nondescript, workaday tools they once were. Today these baskets are commonly referred to as “sweetgrass” baskets—a relatively modern term and material. To fully know this regional basketry, it is vital to understand first the specific plantation economy that birthed it. Until the late nineteenth century, rice dominated Carolina’s southeastern tidelands as the most lucrative of agricultural products. South Carolina’s Lowcountry soil and climate favored its development, and England’s mercantile policies practically guaranteed it. More than 44,000 tons of this “Carolina Gold” shipped from Charleston Harbor in the 1720s, with well over twice that amount leaving the following decade. By 1761 a single barrel of rice fetched forty shillings. By 1770 it exceeded three pounds sterling.

Though their Charleston masters would enjoy a new era of prosperity through rice, it was a different story for the enslaved. Tragically, the unprecedented success of Charleston’s rice crops came entirely on the backs of slaves imported from the West African regions of Sierra Leone and Senegambia, among others. Of these men and women, many were already rice planters before captivity and thus provided not just the labor for rice production but also the know-how. Although slaves arrived here with no material possessions, they brought a rich African heritage, which they soon adapted to New World conditions, oftentimes retaining cultural traits in matters such as religion, burial practices, speech patterns, and, of course, handcrafts.

Among the unique, generations-old methodologies African slaves incorporated into their work, their utilitarian basketry perhaps remains the most readily recognizable. Except for materials used, much of the slave-produced basketry was hardly discernible from purely African-made baskets when placed side by side. After all, the two most common types were made for specific work. Flat, low-rimmed fanners designed for hard use and measuring upwards of two feet in diameter were employed daily in the “winnowing” process that separated rice grains from their chaff. Produce and grain baskets, both similar in form to the fanners except for their high sides, were entirely common to plantation routines and served as container and transport vessels for cut stalks.

Besides the sheer talents of enslaved basket makers, it is critical to note their eye for readily available raw material, of which their new surroundings had plenty. These products had to be sturdy and hardwearing, yet supple enough not to damage the fragile rice grains. Palmetto fronds, for example, appear to have been recognized as a useful resource as early as the turn of the eighteenth century, and not just for baskets. Fans, brooms, chairs with palmetto-woven backs and seats, and other items described as “pretty dressing boxes” appear in myriad estate records and shop inventories.

Local, marsh-grown bulrush, while providing the base medium for African-influenced, slave-made workbaskets, was often gathered from around the plantation. Collected in large bushels and distributed amongst those assigned to basketwork, bunched bulrush strands were tied with a central knot with which each maker began an almost impossibly tight coiling technique. Palmetto, oak, and occasionally hickory splints shored up the coils as they spiraled away from the starting point, the stitches eventually creating strong vessels that easily endured the constant bending, folding, and otherwise rough handling that rice work demanded.

Basketry became commonplace among Carolina’s vast coastal plantations, and it was only a matter of time before non-field hands incorporated them elsewhere. Probate inventories as early as 1720 specifically mention slave-made baskets moving off the fields and into masters’ homes for ancillary uses. As the usefulness and general appreciation of these baskets progressed, so did their general patterns and forms. Covered sewing baskets found immense popularity within the homes of wealthy Charlestonians. From the Miles Brewton House on King Street, an oval bassinet measuring almost three feet in length with ten-inch-high walls demonstrates how elites appreciated these woven wares. The bassinet remains today in the collection of The Charleston Museum.

Basketry had well permeated Lowcountry culture by the nineteenth century. Newspaper advertisements for various Charleston slave auctions, for instance, now and then included lines such as “excellent basket maker.” Workers additionally made and used baskets for profit, some selling their work to neighboring plantations while others utilized large-volume “market” or “tote” baskets to carry goods into Charleston for sale or exchange. One man, an enslaved field hand named Jack Frowers, secretly coiled bulrush into a small boat in 1864. After applying cotton and pitch for waterproofing, he paddled to freedom across Port Royal Sound to a Union army encampment.

The Civil War, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the thirteenth amendment mercifully ended slavery in America. Although the agricultural bulrush workbasket tradition dwindled, black families no longer constrained to Southern plantations still held dear to their basket-making heritage. By the twentieth century, many basket makers began substituting rough bulrush with softer and more malleable sweetgrass, a perennial species of grass native to the southeast, and took on notably more artistic approaches to their work. Thus it was within this blossoming industry that many African Americans, in creating their own decorative and vibrant “show baskets,” came to be identified no longer as mere basket makers but as full-fledged master artisans.

For the most part, today’s sweetgrass baskets bear little resemblance to their agrarian archetypes of past centuries. Expertly expanding upon the designs of old, modern makers practice what has been called “own style” basketry, creating forms bound only by the limits of imagination. Bowls, trays, urns, and vases bound with palmetto and adorned with elegant loops, arching handles, and domed covers are only a smattering of unique constructions found at Mildred Harrell’s sidewalk stand. Moreover, countless businesses, restaurants, and churches utilize these now-heralded crafts. Even more interestingly, workers are currently experimenting with the woven familiarity and local expression of sweetgrass, incorporating it into other
existing decorative arts, such as framework for paintings and portraits, rims and borders for ceramics, and even furniture inlay.

It is undeniable that South Carolina’s Lowcountry basketry, one of the oldest African-descended crafts in the country, has a deserving place within the decorative arts community nationwide. References to them can be found in fine art and literature, while dozens of stunning examples are exhibited in galleries across the US. As further testament to its importance and its heritage, South Carolina House bill 3335 named the sweetgrass basket the official state handcraft on February 26, 2006.

— G.L.

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