The following post was a web page written by Dennis Adams (Information Services Coordinator, Retired) for the old Beaufort County Library website at various points between 1998 and 2007. It has been revised with some new materials and with a list of materials added as compiled by Grace Morris Cordial, Senior Librarian in charge of the Beaufort District Collection, Beaufort County Library. The Beaufort District Collection is the special local history collection and archives unit of the Beaufort County Library (SC).  Creation date: 8 November 2018. All links verified 8 November 2018.

Though the traditions are ancient, sweetgrass baskets are a recent development in our Sea Islander communities — as we learn in Dale Rosengarten’s book, Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry.

Sweetgrass Baskets by Terri Norris
Sweetgrass baskets by Terri Norris

Coiled handmade baskets of sweetgrass, sewn with longleaf pine needles and strips of palmetto leaf bolstered with bulrush, a perennial sedge used to add color and firmness, command good prices at roadside stands or on the City Market and streets of Charleston. In recent years there has been a resurgence in making the baskets though many of the traditional roadside stands or basket houses are now gone due to the widening of US Highway 17 and the increased traffic of large-scale development in and around Charleston County. As Robert Behre noted in his article for the Post & Courier, there are many challenges to the survival of this cottage industry.

Enslaved people had been making coiled baskets, an African technique different from the European weave, since the late 1600s. Sea Island baskets are most closely related to those of Angola, Senegambia, and the Congo in Africa.

The most common material used to be black rush, a marsh grass, bound with strips of white oak or saw palmetto stem. Sweetgrass became popular only at the beginning of the twentieth century when a black community in Mount Pleasant near Charleston began making “show baskets” from the material. According to Joyce Coakley’s Sweetgrass Baskets and the Gullah Tradition, a workplace argument led to the creation of a new business enterprise. When Ida Jefferson Wilson lost her job picking strawberries in the early 1930s, she and her husband Jack set up the first basket stand to attract the attention of motorists on Highway 17 near Boone Hall Plantation. She sold a fruit basket the first day.

These baskets provided much-needed income during the Depression and World War II years, and in the aftermath of hurricanes and boll weevil infestation of the cotton crop. Tourists bought so many baskets that sweetgrass won out over more traditional varieties of basketry. By the 1940s the handicraft was garnering attention though appreciation of the craft as an art form would take several more decades and international recognition to secure. A seven mile stretch of US Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant was designated as the “Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway” in 1997 to indicate the traditional center of the handicraft.

“Sweetgrass (scientific name Muhlenbergia filipes) … is a long-stemmed plant that grows in tufts behind the second dune line from the ocean or along the boundaries between marsh and woods,” wrote Rosengarten. “Here, salt-tolerant trees and shrubs have pinned down the sand and stopped it from shifting, creating a stable barrier from tidal flooding.” Sweetgrass is “prized” by the Mount Pleasant sewer system for its flood-controlling qualities.

On St. Helena Island, however, rush work baskets continued into the first half of the twentieth century. Though the Penn School offered training in “Native Island Basketry” for fifty years, today black rush is used mainly to strengthen and decorate certain types of sweetgrass baskets.

Penn BDC postcard0530002201024
(BDC Postcard Collection, Item 0530002201024)

Fourth generation weaver, Jery Bennett-Taylor, learned her craft at the knees of her mother and grandmother in Mount Pleasant. Now a long-time resident of Beaufort County, Bennett-Taylor is considered St. Helena Island’s best sweetgrass sewer. Michael Smalls, Dino Badger and Daurus Niles among others create sweetgrass baskets and other forms on Hilton Head Island. Most weekdays one can see sweetgrass baskets being made by local artisans at the Coastal Discovery Museum. Learn about the natural materials used and this history of this unique art form and on select days, participate in a make a sweetgrass basket or wreath class.

The early rice industry in the Lowcountry owed its success to a particular type of black rush basket, the “fanner.” Enslaved people “fanned” threshed rice into the air from the baskets to let the wind separate the chaff. On the plantations, enslaved males wove fences, granaries, traps and heavy field baskets. It was up to the women to make the smaller, fancier baskets for the households.

Avery Research Center, College of Charleston, is home to a massive sweetgrass basket collection from which  forty-two images  are posted in the Lowcountry Digital Library website.

African Origins

Margaret Casey in The Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara describes two basic methods of basketry and mat making used on the continent of Africa well before slaves came to America. The first of the Old World methods is plaiting, where braids of wood strips, reeds, grasses or roots are twined or twilled into many different patterns. But it is from the second method that our local sweetgrass baskets descend: “sewn basketry, often called coil-sewn, involves a thin continuous foundation usually of grass which is sewn spirally on itself, using split palm leaf, raffia, or similar fiber. Some baskets are so tightly sewn that they can be used for containers of liquid, being watertight when the fibers have swelled. Other sewn basketry may have the foundation elements plaited or lying in parallel rows, sewn together and then sewn to the rest of the basket.”

In Africa, a basket can be more than just a basket. Other daily uses include roof and wall framework, fish and animal traps, beer strainers, flour sifters, clothing and hats, including ceremonial headdresses and crowns, and dance masks.

The 1924 Penn Center Annual Report lists the selection and prices of the “St. Helena baskets” of the time. The 1924 price appears first for each item, followed by the estimated present-day (2018) value:

  • Scrap baskets, about 10″ x 13.5″                  $ 2.50 in 1924; ~ $35.50 in 2018
  • Scrap baskets, about 12″ x 16″                     $ 3.25 in 1924; ~ $46.50 in 2018
  • Wood baskets, about 16″ x 24″                     $ 6.50 in 1924; ~ $93.50 in 2018
  • Rice fanners (trays), about 2″ x 18″             $ 2.50 in 1924; ~ $35.50 in 2018
  • Lunch baskets                                                  $ 2.50 in 1924; ~ $35.50 in 2018
  • Clothes-hampers                          $10.00 to $12.50 in 1924; ~ $142.50 to $178.00 in 2018
  • Table mats, 6 inch set                                      Per set $ 3.00 in 1924; ~ $42.75 in 2018
  • Covered sewing baskets, about 8″ across    $ 2.00 in 1924; ~ $28.50 in 2018
  • Corn shuck door mats                                     $ 0.80 in 1924; ~ $11.50 in 2018

IMG_2289Gullah culture is so important to the scope and depth of Beaufort District’s long and storied history, the Beaufort County Library decided to pay tribute to it in the architecture and interior decoration of its award-winning St. Helena Branch Library. This Branch Library includes an artistic interpretation of a sweetgrass basket in the center of the facility that houses the Gullah Geechee Research Collection.

Sources:

Sweetgrass Baskets and the Gullah Tradition by Joyce V. Coakley. Arcadia Press, 2005.

Sweetgrass Baskets: A Mount Pleasant Tradition,” Town of Mount Pleasant, SC website.

Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry by Dale Rosengarten. McKissick Museum, 1986.

“Spirits of Our Ancestors: Basket Traditions in the Carolinas” by Dale Rosengarten in The Crucible of Carolina: Essays in the Development of Gullah Language and Culture, edited by Michael Montgomery. University of Georgia Press, 1994.

A Unique Weaver of Beaufort Baskets” by Cathy Carter Harley, Beaufort Gazette (Beaufort, SC) , 12 August 2011.

A Vanishing Landscape Sweetgrass Basket Business Sweet or Sour?” by Robert Behre,  Post & Courier (Charleston, SC), 14 June 2014.

Online Resources:

3 Centuries of South Carolina Tradition Woven into Baskets” by Phillip Sayre, New York Times (New York, NY) 2 September 1997.

Down by the Sweetgrass Highway” by Tom Poland, no date. Accessed 7 November 2018.

Expanding into History: Sweetgrass Basket Stands” by Margaret Ann Michels, Winter 2011.

Sweetgrass: History, Basketry, and Constraints to Industry Growth” by Robert J. Dufault, Mary Jackson, and Stephen K. Salvo. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York, p. 442-445. New Crop Resources online Program, Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Program, 1993.

Sweetgrass Baskets of Mount Pleasant” by The Town of Mount Pleasant, [2011?]. Accessed 7 November 2018.

Sweetgrass Baskets: South Carolina State Handicraft,” SCIway website.

Sweetgrass Baskets: A Mount Pleasant Tradition,” Town of Mount Pleasant, SC website.

A Unique Weaver of Beaufort Baskets” by Cathy Carter Harley, Beaufort Gazette (Beaufort, SC) , 12 August 2011.

A Vanishing Landscape Sweetgrass Basket Business Sweet or Sour?” by Robert Behre,  Post & Courier (Charleston, SC), 14 June 2014.

Check Out These Materials from one of the SCLENDS Consortium Libraries:

The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts by John Michael Vlach. Cleveland Museum of Art, 1978.

Beauty, Her Basket by Sandra Belton; illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera. Greenwillow Books/ Amistad, 2004.

Circle Unbroken: The Story of a Basket and Its People by Margot Theis Raven; pictures by E.B. Lewis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

The Crucible of Carolina: Essays in the Development of Gullah Language and Culture, edited by Michael Montgomery. University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Ebony Pearls: The African American Experience in and around Charleston, South Carolina by Edwin Bahan Peters and Muima Maat. No publisher, 1996.

Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art by Dale Rosengarten. Museum for African Art, 2008.Row upon row

Pine Needle Basketry: From Forest Floor to Finished Product by Judy Mofield Mallow. Lark Books, 2010.

Row upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the Lowcountry by Dale Rosengarten. McKissick Museum, 1986.

A Sweet, Sweet Basket by Margie Willis Clary; illustrations by Dennis L. Brown. Sandlapper Publishing, 1995.

Sweetgrass Baskets and the Gullah Tradition by Joyce V. Coakley. Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

Social Origins of the African-American Lowcountry Basket by Dale Rosengarten. Thesis (Ph.D.), Harvard University, 1997.

Come to the Beaufort District Collection to See These Items:

The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts by John Michael Vlach. Cleveland Museum of Art, 1978.

The Crucible of Carolina: Essays in the Development of Gullah Language and Culture, edited by Michael Montgomery. University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Row upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the Lowcountry by Dale Rosengarten. McKissick Museum, 1986.

CoakleyA Sweet, Sweet Basket by Margie Willis Clary; illustrations by Dennis L. Brown. Sandlapper Publishing, 1995.

Sweetgrass Baskets and the Gullah Tradition by Joyce V. Coakley. Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

Sweet-Grass Baskets [BDC vertical file] contains clippings of articles about traditional lowcountry coiled basket making.

Contact the Beaufort District Collection at 843-255-6468 or e-mail bdc@bcgov.net for additional information about local history and archives relating to the people, places, and themes of the history, culture, and natural environment of Beaufort County, Jasper County and Hampton County, South Carolina. Current hours of operation are listed on the Beaufort County Library website.

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