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The Sweetgrass Basket Tradition

Sweetgrass basketmaking has been part of the Charleston and Mt. Pleasant communities for more than 300 years. Brought to the area by slaves who came from West Africa, basketmaking is a traditional art form which has been passed on from generation to generation. Today, it is one of the oldest art forms of African origin in the United States. Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, an old village and modern suburb on the north side of Charleston Harbor, enjoys the distinction of being the only place where this particular type of basketry is practised. Here, the descendents of slaves from West Africa continue the tradition.

During the days of slavery, rice cultivation, and the flourishing plantations of the Old South, these baskets were in great demand for agricultural purposes. They also brought extra income to slave owners, who often sold baskets to other plantation owners.

During this era, large work baskets were popular. For the most part, they were used to collect and store vegetables, staples, etc. Men made these large baskets from marsh grasses called bulrush. A common form which evolved during this era was the winnowing basket (rice basket) called the "fanner." Other agricultural baskets were for grain storage, cotton, fish and shellfish. Functional baskets for everyday living in the home were made by women. Some of these were made for bread, fruits, sewing, clothes, storage, etc. They were made from the softer, pliable grass commonly called sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes), because of its pleasant fragrance, similar to the smell of fresh hay.

With the decline of the plantation system, black families acquired land and started a new way of life. Because they felt that this basketmaking tradition was an important part of their cultural heritage, and that future generations would be able to retain an identity with Africa through the baskets, they kept the tradition alive. The tradition remains very much alive today. For generations, it has been passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the Lowcountry nearly lost this valuable art. However, in the 1930's, basketmakers saw a new surge of interest from gift shop owners, museums, and hand-craft collectors. The paving of Highway 17 North and the construction of the Cooper River Bridge made the route through Mt. Pleasant a major north-south artery. Basketmakers then started marketing their wares from roadside basket stands, which were directly accessible to tourists.

Today most basket stands are still built along the shoulder of Highway 17 North. Once a small residential community and fishing village outside of Charleston, Mt. Pleasant has become the sixth largest city in South Carolina. This, for the most part, is due to large-scale planned development. With this extensive growth, the roadside basket stands-- a part of the community for over half a century-- have dwindled tremendously in number. Within the past 10 years, development has forced many basket stands to relocate farther north. Others have been totally displaced, as there was no other space in which to relocate. This is a grave problem which basketmakers face today.

Another serious problem confronting the basketmakers of Mt. Pleasant is the dramatic decline in sweetgrass materials due to private development of coastal islands and marshlands. Constant search for these materials has taken basketmakers to other areas outside the community from North Carolina to Florida. Mt. Pleasant basketmakers depend on open access to these materials if their art is to continue. Increased public interest is needed to ensure the future of this Lowcountry tradition.

Basketmaking has always involved the entire family. As was the custom, men and boys gathered the materials while women and girls "sewed" the baskets. This custom continues today; however, in some instances, all members of the family are engaged in both the gathering of the materials and the making of the baskets Rigorous craftsmanship and long hours of work are involved in making these baskets. Even for the most experienced basketmaker, a simple design can take as long as twelve hours. A larger more complex design can take as long as two to three months. Family members have always enjoyed close cooperation in marketing their work. It is quite common to find work belonging to several members of a family on the same basket stand. It is usually these stands that display a wide selection of baskets.

In continuous production since the 18th century, Lowcountry coil basketry is one of the oldest crafts of African origin in America. Today baskets are purchased by museums and art collectors throughout the world, such as the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. Each basket reflects the artist's skill as both designer and technician A basket's value increases with age and with proper care will last indefinitely. Examples of Lowcountry coil basketry exist that are well over a century old. Because the grasses used in these baskets are from wetlands and marsh areas, water will not hurt them. With a soft brush or cloth, they can be carefully washed in soapy water and rinsed thoroughly in cold water. They should then be air dried. This is the only care they require.


Acknowledgements

Text by Marguerite S. Middleton and Mary A. Jackson.

Adapted from a brochure funded by The Mount Pleasant Town Council and the S. C. Dept. of Parks, Recreation & Tourism.