Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry

Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry

By Dale Rosengarten

Vol. 8, No. 6, 1986, pp. 17-24

Coiled sea grass basketry flourishes today in the tidewater region of South Carolina. In all seasons, or any given day, travellers to Charleston can find dozens of basketmakers from the surburban community of Mt. Pleasant, showing their wares on street corners in the city and on crudely constructed stands along Highway 17. On Market Street and the corners of Meeting and Broad, arrays of baskets in a multitude of shapes and sizes grace the edge of the sidewalks, while their makers sit behind them, talking and sewing new forms. North of the historic city, across the Cooper River Bridge, as you drive past the shopping malls and subdivisions that have sprouted in Mt. Pleasant, you might not know which state you were in, if it weren’t for the palmetto trees and the basket stands.

Contemporary Mt. Pleasant baskets descend from an ancient African folk art that was introduced in Carolina late in the seventeenth century. The African peoples who were brought to America to cultivate rice and other crops carried with them skills they had used in everyday life. Pottery and woodcarving, boatbuilding and netmaking, as well as speech patterns, folk songs, and musical instruments, all survived the Atlantic passage and resurfaced in new plantation communities. In the lowcountry, where blacks outnumbered whites as early as 1708, coiled basketry was one of several viable African “carryovers.”

The early history of Afro-American basketry parallels the rise of rice cultivation on the southeastern coast. Even before Carolina was colonized, rice had been proposed as a staple for export. Around 1690, after two decades of experimentation, settlers began producing a “plausible yield,” and by the mid-eighteenth century, rice was the principal crop of what was to become the wealthiest group of planters in America. From the start, lowcountry plantations proved to be friendly environments for the production of Afro-American sea grass baskets. Indeed, rice could not have been processed without a particular coiled basket, called the “fanner.” The fanner was a wide winnowing tray used to “fan” rice-that is, to throw the threshed and pounded grain into the air or drop it from a basket held at a height into another basket, allowing the wind to blow

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away the chaff.

Utilizing the natural materials of their new environment, Afro-Americans made fanners and other large agricultural baskets out of black rush, an abundant marsh grass, bound with thin splits of white oak or strips from the stem of the saw palmetto. As rice culture spread, so did the manufacture of these coiled work baskets. After the Civil War, men and some women continued to sew rush baskets for use on those plantations which weathered Reconstruction and on small, family farms which were carved out of the old estates.

The anonymous nature of early Afro-American basketry belies its range and importance. At one time the craft must have been practiced along the whole length of the coastal rice kingdom, from its southernmost outposts on the St. Johns River, in Florida, to its northern reaches in Lower Cape Fear, North Carolina. Nine-tenths of the ante-bellum rice crop was grown in South Carolina and Georgia, however, and it is here that sea grass baskets have left a historical record. It is easy to see why coiled basketry persisted along rice-growing tidal rivers, yet it also took firm hold on those Sea Islands where commercial quantities of rice were not produced. There, rice was cultivated as a provision crop, for local consumption; slaves from rice-growing regions of Africa were said to ‘1anguish without their favorite food.” In some cases, the dietary preferences of Afro-Americans apparently were as important as the profit motives of their masters in determing whether coiled baskets would be made. Well into the 1 900s, black farmers throughout the lowcountry planted small crops of “upland” or “dry” rice and processed the grain in the African way, using flails, mortars and pestles, and fanner baskets.

Despite the coiled basket’s steady use as an implement of American rice culture and as a common household object, it is difficult to assemble a precise history of the craft. Because grasses and wood fibers are highly perishable and wear out in normal use, and because they lack the intrinsic value of porcelain or silver, discarded baskets in early times were assigned to the woodpile or left to rot in the shed.

A revolution in materials, forms, and functions occured at the turn of the twentieth century in Mt. Pleasant, where a community of landed black families began mass-producing and l selling “show baskets” made of sweetgrass. Sweetgrass baskets had been sewn before, but never on a scale to rival rush handwork. During the agricultural depressions following the hurricanes of the 1890s and early 1900s and the arrival of the boll weevil in 1918, show baskets provided a source of cash. Mt. Pleasant basketmakers and Charleston retailers saw alike possibilities in a new tourist market. Sweetgrass baskets, sewn with strips of palmetto leaf and adorned with longleaf pine needles, became a local specialty, and women came to dominate the craft.

While Mt. Pleasant sewers turned their talents to sweetgrass, rush “work baskets” continued to be made in isolated communities along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. At the Penn School, on St. Helena Island, “Native Island Basketry” remained an important part of the “industrial” curriculum for fifty years. But as agriculture declined and resort development began to alter the face of the lowcountry, rush baskets went out of use and almost disappeared. In recent years, however, sweetgrass has become increasingly scarce around Charleston, and Mt. Pleasant sewers are using rush again -not as the sole material in their baskets, but as an element incorporated with sweetgrass to add strength and color to large sculptural forms.

Why has coiled basketry persisted in Mt. Pleasant? The answer has to do with the strategic location of the community and the sewers’ responsiveness to a growing market. Mt. Pleasant began making show baskets, made for sale to tourists and Charleston retailers, differed from traditional agricultural or household work baskets in several ways: in the use of palm leaf instead of palmetto butt; in the proliferation of styles and decorative motifs; and in the basketmakers’ concerted appeal to buyers. Adapting traditional forms and inventing new ones, sewers developed a large repertory of functional shapes–bread trays, table mats, flower and fruit baskets, shopping bags, hat box baskets, missionary bags, clothes hampers, sewing, crochet, and knitting baskets, spittoon baskets, wall pockets, picnic baskets, thermos bottles or wine coolers, ring trays, cord baskets, cake baskets, wastepaper baskets, and platters in the shape of small fanners.

The sewers’ first wholesale marketing venture was inaugurated in 1916 by prominent Charleston merchant and civic leader named Clarence W. Legerton, whom basketmakers remember today as “Mr. Lester” or “Mr. Leviston.” Through Sam Coakley, acting as an agent for basketmakers in his community, Legerton commissioned quantities of baskets and sold them wholesale through his Sea Grass Basket Company and retail in his bookstore on King Street.

Legerton continued to buy baskets directly from Mt. Pleasant sewers through the 1940s. His second son, Clifford, recalls that his father “tried his level best to get them to organize to mass produce.” No doubt, Clarence Legerton’s steady patronage was a tremendous impetus to the basketmakers in and around Hamlin Beach, and may account for the settlement’s heavy concentration of sewers. “Manigault Corner,” at one end of Hamlin Beach, consists of a dozen households including about sixty people. Basketmaking is an habitual activity in most homes there, and as the girls mature many of them keep up the work. Mary Jane Manigault, an elder of the community and a daughter of Sam Coakley, Legerton’s agent, is widely acclaimed as a master basketmaker. In 1984 she won a National Heritage Fellowship, a prestigious award given by the National Endowment for the Arts to draw attention to a lifetime of excellence in “a local tradition that has reached a really high level of artistry.”

Within fifteen years after Legerton began trading in Mt. Pleasant baskets, sewers developed a strategy for selling directly to tourists. The paving of Highway 17 and the construction of the Cooper River Bridge made the coastal route which passes through Mt. Pleasant a major north-south artery. Around 1930, basketsewers began displaying their wares on the road. Mrs. Betsy

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Johnson is reputed to have had the first “basket house” on the highway in front of her home. She and her daughter, Edna Rouse, would hang a few baskets from wooden “arms” nailed to a shed, to advertise that they had baskets for sale. To increase their stock, they would buy baskets from other sewers in the community. By the 1940s, Mrs. Johnson was commissioning work from numbers of people to fill “big orders,” and sending “great boxes” of baskets away.

Over the years, basketmakers have had many local patrons, but the chief clientele at basket stands always has been tourists. In 1949, the News cad Courier’s Jack Leland described “gleaming…automobiles, driven by persons from the large modern centers of this country’s industrial areas” who stop to look “at an importation of the artistry of African workers.”

In the 1980s, tourist traffic flows past the basket stands twelve months a year. Today’s structures look a lot like the oldtime stands and shed. Bare of baskets, they appear flimsy and make-shift, but in use they hold lively exhibitions of original art. Basketmakers may sit beside their stands, conversing with their neighbors, or sew in the privacy of their vans or station wagons, some of which are equipped with kerosene heaters, small televisions, and picnic coolers.

Despite the modern conveniences, selling on the highway entails risks and discomforts. High noise levels can make talking, even thinking, difficult. The danger of automobile accidents is real, with so many busy feeder roads emptying onto the highway and ever-increasing commercial and residential traffic. Air pollution irritates the people who stay with their stands all day and injures the baskets as well. Exposure to sun, rain, and dirt makes many baskets “go bad” before they can be sold. Besides these possible misfortunes, sewers who don’t own houses on the highway face the insecurity of not knowing whether they will be allowed to keep their stands where they are, or be forced to move them to make way for new condominiums or supermarkets.

An activity that under slavery gave men a measure of independence, under freedom has provided economic opportunities and avenues of expression for women. The negative side of its persistence is that it reflects a reality of dismal alternatives. Until very recently, the only jobs available to black women in the lowcountry were poorly paid and menial, such as working in the fields or cleaning homes, hotels, hospitals, and restaurants. The women call these jobs “hard work,” “working out,” and “working for nothing.” Older basketmakers learned to sew when they were girls as an extension of farm life, in a tradition of independent producers and entrepreneurs. Some continue to make baskets because they must; besides being the best way they know to supplement their income, basketmaking has become so much a part of their lives they couldn’t give it up. Maggie Polite Manigault, for example, explained to

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a granddaughter that she makes baskets “because she has been doing it for so long that she would feel lost if she didn’t sew at least once a day.” Many younger women have returned to basketmaking after searching in vain for jobs that “pay something.” Some have taken up the craft part-time while they are at home caring for small children or aging parents. Still others, drawn by the desirable qualities of the work, have chosen basketmaking over “outside” jobs. Basketmakers enjoy an autonomy which is rare in today’s working world; they can set their own hours for weaving and selling, exercise their own judgment and intelligence, and work with family members in a collective enterprise.

Most sewers regard basketmaking first as a source of income, and their moods rise and fall with daily or seasonal fluctuations in sales. Some basketmakers–though generally not the youngest ones–find the work therapeutic. “Even though basketweaving is time consuming,” says Mae Bell Coakley, “I enjoy it because it’s relaxing, kind of therapy.” Making things with your hands keeps your head together,” Mary Jane Manigault reflects. “When you sew baskets, you just concentrate on that one thing. You have to have long patience. You can’t be a nervous somebody and make baskets. You have to sit in one place and really get into what you are doing. You can’t have your mind running on all kind of different things. You have to have a settled mind.”

Not the least of the satisfactions of making baskets is the chance to be paid and appreciated for doing your work well. While sewers unanimously complain that people don’t want to pay what a basket is worth, basketmakers as a group have begun to enjoy a new status. “I think the biggest change,” Jannie Gourdine told a Charleston journalist in 1980, “is that people look at us as artists now instead of just basket weavers.”

Coiled basketry has spread near and far as Mt. Pleasant women have married men from other areas or moved away pursuing jobs. Some sewers who have settled in nearby communities such as Awendaw, McClellanville, Charleston, Johns Island, and Goose Creek, have enlisted the help of their husbands and in-laws in gathering materials, making baskets, and marketing. Other basketmakers have moved to more distant South Carolina towns, such as Rock Hill, Sumter, and Frogmore, and as far away as New York, Baltimore, Cartersville, Gal, and Jacksonville, Fla. These emigrant sewers maintain close ties with home. Most acquire their materials and sell their baskets through relatives in Mt. Pleasant, and some spend summers there too.

Basketmaking has expanded from settlement to settlement within Mt. Pleasant, as Mt. Pleasant itself has grown. In 1949, thirty-one stands were counted along a two-mile stretch of Highway 17, in the vicinity of Christ Church. Today twice that many occupy sites on both sides of the road all the way from “Four-Mile” to “Ten-Mile.” (Neighbothoods in Mt. Pleasent are named for distance from Charleston) The number of highway shops peaked in the mid-’60s, when over seventy were reported. At this point sellers seem to have gotten ahead of their market. Sewers complained of too many stands, lower prices than five years before, and intense competition for the tourist trade.

Few people could depend on basketmaking for a living. Most used it to supplement income earned doing housework or farm labor. “Some sell baskets in the winter and then work on a farm picking tomatoes and cucumbers in the summer,” a basketmaker told a reporter for the State in 1966. “Some days, don’t make nothing,” declared Victoria Milton, a sewer for over thirty years. “Some weeks, don’t make nothing or make no more than four or five dollars.” Apparently, basketmakers were earning about the same in the 1960s as they did in 1952, when the Charleston Evening Post estimated an average daily income at two dollars. Medium-sized baskets were selling for two to three dollars, larger wastepaper baskets and picnic hampers for six or seven. Prices were slow to rise. In 1971, ten dollars was a top price for carry-alls, serving trays, and handbags. “Just enough profit to keep body and soul together,” sighed one long-time sewer. “The tourists won’t pay any more than that because most of them figure that’s all it’s worth.”

Depressed prices were just one of the chronic problems afflicting the trade. By the 1970s, the number of basket stands had dropped to about fifty, with some 300 women engaged in the craft. Fewer stands did not mean a contracting market; instead, basketsewers were leaving the highway to try promising new outlets–craft shows, shops, galleries, commission work and, especially, the Charleston market. Nevertheless, observers felt that lowcountry basketry was in grave danger.

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“Rattlesnakes, a shortage of grass, and a lack of apprentices,” reporter Tom Hamrick predicted, “will some day soon bring down the curtain on the centuries-old business of hand-woven basket making in Charleston County.”

Snakes always have been seen as a danger by the people who gather materials. To go into the “swamps” to pull sweetgrass, Mary Jane Bennett explained, “I used to put turpentine on my shoe. Snakes run from turpentine, and I just had to hope they didn’t run toward me instead of away.” New and more serious threats to the craft were the scarcity of sweetgrass and the disinterest of the younger generation. As Mt. Pleasant developed into a sprawling suburb, local sources of sweetgrass were paved over or rendered off limits. Tropical storms and hurricanes which have struck the Carolina coast over the past few decades also have taken a toll on sweetgrass. Gatherers began travelling to Johns Island and Kiawah, but soon sweetgrass habitats in these places, too, were decimated by housing and resort development.

“I was fortunate enough to go on Seabrook Island before they started building up,” Mary Scott relates, “and they had the beautifulest grass over there. Nobody knew about it till the people start surveying to get the golf course straight…and then our people saw the grass and we had a chance to get over there before the building start. The prettiest kind of grass you want to see was over there…and all these years those grass was there and nobody knew about them.”

At this critical juncture, in the early 1970s, Mt. Pleasant basketmakers again demonstrated their resourcefulness and versatility. Running short of sweetgrass, they rediscovered rush, and began using it to increase the strength and enhance the beauty of their baskets. Although this “new” material has made up in part for the dwindling supply of sweetgrass, it has not replaced it as the basket’s primary foundation material. Today, most sweetgrass comes fiom coastal Georgia and northern Florida, gathered for the basketmakers by men in their families or small-time entrepreneurs. The costs of these trips are borne by the sewers, who pay as much as twenty dollars for a bunch of grass you can just put your hands around. Even if they are able to recoup this expense when they sell their baskets, sewers have to plan for a major outlay of capital at the end of each summer, when they must stockpile enough grass to last until the gathering season begins in the spring.

The difficulty of interesting young people in the work–the second major threat to the craft’s survival–has proved hared to overcome. The problem is two-fold, the sedentary nature of the work makes it unappealing to active youngsters, and its marginal economic rewards cannot compete with the legal minimum wage. “This is a boring way to spend all day,” one basketsewer remarked, “and my children won’t have nothing to do with basketweaving.” Predicting that the “business will die off” when the current generation dies, another basketmaker

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bluntly defined the trouble: “This is just too much monotony for the kids today. They don’t want to sit all day and half the night and weave with their fingers and a little sawed-off spoon for a shuttle because they can make more money doing almost anything else.”

Children under the age of ten appear eager to learn to sew and feel privileged to participate in the work of their elders. As adolescents, however, they become preoccupied with social life, school work, television, and athletics, and they lose interest in the craft. “We don’t want to sit down and do this kind of stuff,” eighteen year-old Melony Manigault confides. “We want to get up and go.” When pressed some youngsters reveal a deep ambivalence about making baskets. On the one hand, they feel coerced and impatient when they are expected to sew. On the other hand they know the importance of the craft to their parents and their people, and want k, see it outlast their generation. Melony, for example, a serious girl and an heir to generations of sewers, expects to keep making baskets, “but not as steady as grandmama and mama.” Sewing “one day out of the week,” as she does, is “not good enough if you want to sell. You got to make ’em every day.”

Melony plans to attend college and doesn’t think she will live in the lowcountry after she graduates. By the age of thirty, women who have stayed in Mt. Pleasant usually have settled down and started raising families of their own. Many pick up basketmaking again as a means of earning a few extra dollars. Those who pursue the craft generally find compensations in the work other than money. “I just love to do it,” say Sue Middleton, who quit her job about six years ago to sew fulltime. Considering the time it takes to make a basket and the cost of materials, “you never get what you put in,” she says. “If you’re just doing it for the money you’ll never do it.” You have to like it.

Coiled baskets appeal today to a broad and varied audience, from souvenir hunters to collectors of folk art, from people who want a bread basket to set on their dining table to museum curators who want to document the craft and preserve examples in a dust-free, climate-controlled cabinet. Prices have risen dramatically since 1971, nearly doubling every five years. Small baskets now sell from ten to fifteen dollars, though most sewers keep on hand a number of two and five dollar items, such as bells, wreaths, Christmas stars, toy baskets, and the work of children. Middle-sized baskets range from twenty to eighty dollars, and very large baskets command prices in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

Considering the current market, sewers are more likely to spend the time making big baskets. Rush, with its thick blades and great rigidity, is structurally suited to large baskets, and encourages sewers to work on a grand scale. “I really love the large one now even more than I like the small one, ” says Marie Manigault,

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“because the large one show up prettier.” Grouped together on a display table at the edge of the highway, these big baskets catch the traveller’s eye. They sell slower than small pieces, sewers report, but eventually they do sell.

With their conical covers and bigbellied shapes, modern Mt. Pleasant baskets appear more African than earlier forms. Indeed, some sewers are influenced by exposure to African basketry, either through books or through examples of tribal crafts brought home by families travelling abroad. In size and color, large contemporary baskets also bring to mind the traditional rush baskets that were used on rice plantations and family farms during the nineteenth century.

Mt. Pleasant basketmakers tend to be guarded about their craft–protective of their livelihood and of a skill that sets them apart. “As long as nobody takes our baskets away from Charleston, from me and the black people here,” Jannie Gourdine told a New York Times reporter in 19S3 “then we’ll never be obsolete. These baskets are part of us.” With the new public respect shown for their work younger basketmakers have become less fearful than their elders about teaching the craft to people outside their community. Workshops in coiled basketry are offered regularly by museums, schools, adult education programs, and community centers throughout the lowcountry. In social profile, the people who attend these classes resemble the white middle-class women who filled the ranks of

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the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the century and took up the art of Indian basketry as a pastime.

Coiled basketry survived the loss of its old functions because basketmakers found new ones and developed the aesthetic side of their tradition. The hand production of baskets remained feasible because sewers did not expect more than marginal income from it, and because there were few competing opportunities. As economic prospects for black people improve, basketmaking will become less appealing as a way to earn an income. Yet, by enduring into the 1980s, sea grass basketry has become subject to forces which make its immediate future bright. Charleston’s tourist traffic shows no sign of let-up, and the flow of potential buyers soon will be expanded by the convention trade.

A small collectors’ market underwrites the trend toward greater recognition and higher prices. How many people the demand for baskets as art can support is uncertain, but the impact of this new market is likely to be greater than one would guess from the limited number of sewers who cater to it. We can already see the tendency toward larger, more showy baskets; the emphasis on regular stitching and elaborate surface decoration; the rise of innovation and the eclipse of the basket’s historic provincialism and primitivism–the results, albeit indirect, of pressures and tastes exerted by buyers looking for expressive forms.

As society becomes more technical and craft skills become the province of specialists, the value of handmade objects will increase. Mt. Pleasant basketmakers should see more income from their craft, and those who want to may be able to spend more time sewing. Many sewers will never be adequately paid for their time and labor. The hidden costs in a basket are simply too great. But regardless of market conditions, some people will continue to sew. As tokens of loved ones and links between the generations, baskets are meaningful to them in ways buyers cannot fathom.

Louise White, a reflective and devoted basketsewer, explained that while she was keeping house for a certain family she would examine a set of sweetgrass placemats her mother had made many years before. If she found a place that needed repair she would “carry a palm from home in my pocketbook” and mend the break, “just to see how long Mama basket will be there.” She plans to give each of her children an example of every type of basket she makes, hoping to provide them with models from which to sew. “I always want them to have something to remember in days to come,” she muses. Perhaps they will be inspired to take up where she leaves off. “It may be hard for them to see it, but days will come whey will sew baskets….This basket here is strictly just in the lowcountry, and if the generation don’t take it up when we gone, it’s going to die away. But they will sew baskets. They will, time will come, they will sew.”

Baskets are live eloquent forms, firmly rooted in a lineage and a tradition. In a world of abrupt shifts and dislocations, the old shapes and techniques have always been elements of stability. One can sew a familiar form and transcend the insecurity of the moment. Making a basket takes self-discipline; it gives self-possession. Even if the basket serves someone else’s purpose, the act of sewing connects the basketmaker to a proud inheritance that cannot be diminished.

Dale Rosengarten, of McClellanville, S.C., served as guest curator for the exhibition, “Row Upon Row: Seagrass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry,” presented by McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, during, the fall of 1986. Support for the exhibition and for the publication of the catalog, from which the present essay has been formed, was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, Folk Arts Program and the South Carolina Arts Commission.