Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Four years ago, when our project of tape record­ing oral traditions in the Union County area began, we became aware that several area families had been making baskets for generations. Particularly in the “tight end” of our county, where the Shivelys were, and the Forest Hill area, where the Diehls had lived, these skills and attitudes were passed down and practiced much longer than in other areas that had been opened up to more modern ways, and where people were more transient.

After doing a number of interviews on the subject of basketry, followed by a slide show about it, and then a 16mm. color film John Wesley Shively: Heritage, we were still unaware of how strong and independent a tradition existed. This was particularly true of the round oak splint basketry, the predominant style. It has been misunder­stood, even being classified by many as Victorian wicker­work. At the end of our research effort, however, we were able to place it alongside other Pennsylvania basket types.

As we had done in the project on central Pennsylvania stoneware pottery, the one from which we published Made of Mud, we plunged into tax assessments, census records, and business directories in an effort to locate old basketmakers. But only rarely did we find them in these otherwise rich sources of information. In 1939 two re­porters of the Reading Eagle who tried to interview a basketmaker found that such craftsmen were an elusive group. Looking for the basketmaker’s mountaintop log house described in Cornelius Weygandt’s essay on bas­ketry (The Dutch Country, 1939), they experienced the same frustration that we did more recently. After two days of searching, Charles Wilson, Jr., stated, “Hunting for the proverbial needle in the haystack, we’ve decided, is a cinch compared with the assignment which has had us foundering around South Mountain …. In fact, hereafter, when we want to imply that a task is tough, we are going to employ the phrase, ‘as hard as finding an Old Dutch basketmaker.'”

This elusiveness is a result of the type of person who made baskets, and the nature of making baskets in rural Pennsylvania. In spite of the great need for all sorts of baskets for nineteenth-century homes, farms, and busi­nesses, the majority of them were made in the homes of farmers and not by the large firms like Diamond Basket Company of Philadelphia. The home producers were full­-time farmers, storekeepers, carpenters, sawmillers, stone­masons, and odd-jobs men. They plied their basket skill in the winter when the weather precluded other chores.

Henry B. Plumb, in History of Hanover Township [and the] Wyoming Valley (1885), described a typical family winter scene of the early nineteenth century: “Until bed time all were employed; the women carding wool or spinning tow or flax or some other occupation. The men and boys would be shelling corn or making splint baskets or chairs, twisting tobacco to press into a plug … or some other useful thing. All were employed. None were idle.” In Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1640-1840 (published in 1950), Stevenson W. Fletcher noted that “During the era of domestic manufacture, farmers participated in a great variety of other trades and crafts on a part-time basis.” Basketmaking is mentioned again and again in oral accounts like that of Mrs. Esther Snook who said, when asked about her basketmaker father, Edwin Reed (a farmer and miner), ‘Why, it was just a natural thing to do in wintertime.”

In an era when neighborliness was essential, a farmer skilled in basketmaking usually permitted his neighbors to bring in their old baskets for repair. There were orders for new baskets as well: perhaps egg and market baskets for the new housewife down the road, or some huckster baskets for a local itinerant trader. The farmer completed these orders during the winter when there were few de­mands on his time. Usually someone else in his household, naturally skilled and motivated by interest – a son, a son-in­-law, sometimes a daughter (though this was not common among daughters in Pennsylvania) – would be drawn to the craft. While they were youngsters they would help prepare materials, do repair work, and occasionally weave entire baskets. Earl Diehl of Wescosville remembered working with his uncle as a child, and having to make two or three ribs before being allowed to go sleigh riding. Often this skill lapsed until they, like the parent who had taught them, had more time free to engage in the work. Some­times they did not return to full-time basketmaking until retirement. A few, like Freddie and Annie Bieber of Fred­ericksville, Asher Cox of Alvira, and George Yarger of Wabash were full-time basketmakers all their lives, but that was not the usual pattern.

The basket companies listed in the old directories of cities like Philadelphia, Erie, and Pittsburgh were probably factories where a number of people were employed daily to perform on an assembly-line basis. Each worker did just one task, such as putting on the handles, rather than making the entire basket. However, even after machines for steaming the willow, making veneer, and stapling rims were introduced, many basic factory operations were done by hand. One rural town in Berks County was put on the map because it had several of these small basket companies. It was appropriately named Basket.

Each basketmaker worked within the tradition in which he had been taught. This depended on the nationality of the family. In Pennsylvania the main nationalities were German, English, and Scots-Irish, each of which had a basket tradition. Pennsylvania Germans, for example, con­tinued to weave rye coil baskets just as they had been woven for centuries.

Willow, the prevalent traditional basket material for all these immigrant groups, was used in Pennsylvania by Gypsies and by those working in the town of Basket. In some parts of Pennsylvania willow was replaced by round oak splints, deliberately and painstakingly fashioned to duplicate willow. It is not known whether the European immigrants were just overwhelmed by the abundance of wood here, whether they sought a basket more durable than those made of willow, or whether they had trouble finding the basket willow that is native to Europe. What­ever the reason, the wide range of European willow forms was duplicated here in round oak.

American Indians had little or no influence on Pennsylvania basketmakers. Indian basketry in the Northeast, even up to recent years, had exhibited a great variety of decorative details: dyed splints, stamped designs, and varied splint widths within a single basket. These were usually made of ash. Pennsylvania baskets, however, were mostly utilitarian. Embellishments (such as open work in rye coifs, dyed splints found on Easter baskets, and varied weaving patterns) were not common.

Basketmakers became a tradition-bound group because of the conservative way in which craft skills are transmitted, and because of their farming background. Steven­son Fletcher quoted an observer’s comment in 1822: “The farmer believes nothing he hears, but requires to see and feel before he gives credit to what he has been told, and then rarely acts immediately upon his belief.” Since baskets were made for basically the same purpose year after year, it was natural that the old reliable way of constructing them would continue. Even today, there is a minimum of experimentation among those who learned the trade as their fathers did. Down to the smallest detail of notching and lashing a handle, tradition remains the strongest ele­ment in basketmaking.

In the past, those basketmakers who were able to produce on a regular basis had enough items so that they could sell beyond their immediate neighborhood. They would often go to spring auctions, selling quickly what they had brought with them. Freddie and Annie Bieber, and Harry Groff, all of Berks County, did this. Another, Jim Diehl of Wabash, strapped his baskets onto a leather belt, slung it over his back, and walked the twenty miles to Milton. In spring and summer Gypsies would arrive in the small towns, camp by the creeks, and make plant stands, urns, willow fancy work, as well as baskets. Baskets were often purchased there.

There are many amusing stories about baskets obtained by barter. In 1905 a big egg basket was purchased for a pair of overalls worth forty-five cents, a shirt (fifty cents), and ten cents’ worth of cheese. In 1923 a bushel basket was obtained for $2. 15 cash and a day’s labor; in 1930 a large berry basket was bartered for an ironing board.

Jesse Gerhardt remembers the prices he received for round oak baskets in 1934: two dollars for a bushel basket, seventy-five cents for a peck basket, and fifty cents for a half-peck basket. “There’s no money in it and it’s hard work,” he said. He was paying $1.50 then for oak trees ten inches in diameter, from which he could make seven or eight large baskets. “If you have all your materials ready, you can make a dozen smaller baskets in a day. But if you got to go out and get your materials, you’re lucky if you get one finished that day.” Albert Groff remembers his father receiving fifty cents for a large clothes basket when he began, around 1923, and finally getting $3.50 in 1949, toward the end of his career. The same item now sells for twenty-five dollars.

The only extant basketmaker’s account book from the past is that of Joseph Codding of Danielson, Connecticut. In 1869 he earned $752.27. His prices then were: bushel size, $7 .50 per dozen; half-bushel size, $4 per dozen; peck size, $3 to $4 per dozen; cheese baskets, 75¢ to $1 per dozen; common market baskets, $2 per dozen or 33¢ each; large market baskets, $6 per dozen or 50¢ each. Surprisingly, he would charge different prices for the same item within the same year. In the twentieth century, however, basket prices seem to have been remarkably consistent from one part of the country to another.

Lucy and William Cook of Luray, Virginia, remember how they became full-time basketmakers in 1925. As newlyweds they needed a basket for their vegetable garden. William, who remembered how his mother and her family had made them, wove the desired basket, but traded it to a neighbor who needed it more than he did. Other neighbors wanted his products and the Cooks have manufactured baskets ever since. They found it more rewarding than living on a laborer’s wages, then only one dollar per day.

Of course, individual basket weavers never grew rich, but there was a time when they received reasonable financial returns. When baskets ceased to be used as general containers and as implements on farms, however, basketry ceased to be profitable. Therefore, basketmakers were no longer replaced by their sons as traditionally had been the case. Only the recent popularity of folk culture has placed basketry in demand again.

What changes occurred on the farm to cause the decline? Heavy field or produce baskets were no longer needed when harvesting was modernized. The baskets known as the winnowing fan, the straw bee skep, the seed sower’s, the charcoal, and the rye coal bread became obsolete. Boxes, crates, large tin cans, and bags replaced baskets for hauling and storing goods. The remaining basket market was largely taken over by foreign imports. Peddlers would carry the imports into rural areas, or they could be obtained by mail order from companies like Sears, Roebuck.

Some interesting statements can be made about basketry materials and styles. Flat white oak, the predominant material used in Pennsylvania, is also in use in other states where German immigrants settled: Virginia, Missouri, and Iowa. As for the type of construction, we can say that the plaited type found in Pennsylvania is used nearly every­where. The coiled straw form is found in areas where there were German settlements. Ribbed baskets, in the modified melon shape, are more common in Pennsylvania than the cheek, or orsha baka, ribbed shape. The latter is prevalent in southern Appalachia. Of the various spoke-constructed baskets found in Pennsylvania, the ones in willow are also commonly found in the Midwest and South, while the flat oak is common in New York and New England. Round oak splint basketry appears to be a Pennsylvania tradition. Perhaps in the future it will be taken up by basketmakers in other areas; a few examples of it have already been found in southern Appalachia.

Some basket shapes – like those of cheese, wall, feather, loom, and swing-handled work baskets – are found so in­frequently in Pennsylvania as to suggest that they were brought in. Most baskets made in Pennsylvania were woven freehand, whereas many that were made in New York and New England were produced on pre-shaped forms, much like hatters’ forms. Our research has not shown, however, that one basket type, in either construction or material, is necessarily older than the others. All are rooted in traditions that go back hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years.


The author is leading a seminar, “Baskets and Their Makers in Pennsylvania from Early Times to Present,” at the Institute of Pennsylvania Rural Life and Culture held June 20-23 [1978] at the Pennsylvania Farm Museum of Landis Valley. An exhibit of Pennsylvania baskets of varying shapes and sizes from the collection of the Landis brothers will be at the Orientation Center there from now through October. This complements a show, “Willow, Oak & Rye,” held May 7-June 16 at Bucknell University.


Jeannette Lasansky is currently a lecturer at Bucknell University and director of Union County Oral Traditions Projects in Lewisburg. She is author of Made of Mud: Stoneware Potteries in Central Pennsylvania 1834-1929 and of Willow, Oak & Rye: Basket Traditions in Pennsylvania. The latter fifty­-page work, just published, expands upon the ideas in this article.