Baskets of Southeastern Pennsylvania

By Trish Herr
Click on any image to enlarge it.

Figure 1 Rye Basket

Figure 1. Coiled ryestraw open basket, southeastern Pennsylvania, early 20th century. This is the most common form of ryestraw basket seen in Pennsylvania and was used for many household purposes. W-12”.

 

Figure 2 Rye Straw Basket with Lid

Figure 2. Coiled ryestraw basket with lid, southeastern  Pennsylvania, late 19th century. Because of its large size and relatively fragile nature this basket probably held goose down feathers used to fill bed ticks. H-22”, W-17”.

 

Figure 3 Rye Sewing Basket

Figure 3. Coiled ryestraw sewing basket, southeastern, Pennsylvania, late 19th-early 20th century. This oval form with open work around the sides with additional small basket is an unusual but functional form. It was found in Hanover, York County, Pennsylvania H-6 3/4”, L-13”.

Many books and articles have been written about American baskets and basket making, but few concentrate on those made in southeastern Pennsylvania.  This area was settled in the 18th and early 19th centuries by German speaking settlers and English and Scots-Irish immigrants.

Most of the surviving baskets so highly prized by collectors were made in the early 20th century with a smaller percentage from the later 19th century.  Probably the oldest form surviving in any quantity in this region is the coiled ryestraw basket, likely of Germanic origin. The most common form is the simple round open bowl shape, seen in Figure 1. It would have had many home uses ranging from holding household objects and sewing items to fruits, vegetables and bread dough while it was rising.

An example of a much larger covered storage basket is illustrated in Figure 2. Because of the fragile nature of their ryestraw coils wrapped with thin oak splints large baskets such as this example probably held fairly light weight materials such as feathers that would have been used in stuffing the typical Pennsylvania German bed ticks. 

A rare ryestraw example is the sewing basket seen in Figure 3. This oval example has decorative open work below the rim and a smaller oval basket attached to one edge. This smaller container was likely used to hold sewing items such as needles, pins, and thimbles.  A few rare documented ryestraw baskets, probably dating from the early 1800s, may be seen in the collections of the Ephrata Cloister, an historic site administered by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission located in northern Lancaster County.

Figure 4

Figure 4. White oak splint utility basket, southeastern Pennsylvania, early 20th century. This sturdy basket has an open work square bottom and substantial sides and heavy rounded rim. It may have been used as a field basket for harvest with the open areas of the bottom allowing moisture and dirt to fall through. H-11”, D-16”.

 

Figure 5 Flat Splint Baskets

Figure 5. Two white oak splint handled baskets, attr. to the workshop of Edwin Strack, Jackson Township, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, early 20th century. These utilitarian baskets are well made and consistent with other examples associated with this craftsman.  Larger basket H-11 1/2”, L-15”. Smaller basket H-10”, L-15”.

The makers of the baskets discussed here were often men living in small towns or rural areas, who were not primarily basket weavers, but farmers and laborers. They would have used the available materials of ryestraw  and sections of young white oak trees laboriously cut into splints and rods to construct their baskets.  During the winter when crops were dormant they could work in protected shop and barn areas. 

Pennsylvania basket makers also worked with flat splint construction, usually oak, making both round and square or rectangular forms as seen in Figures 4 and 5. The construction techniques and materials are similar to those used throughout North America and without provenance would be hard to identify as specifically southeastern Pennsylvania.

Figure 6 Willow Basket

Figure 6. Willow basket with small handles, attributed to Edwin Geesey, Spring Grove, York County, Pennsylvania, early 20th century. H-3 1/2”, D-5”.

Willow baskets are also found throughout North American and not limited to, or primarily associated with, southeastern Pennsylvania.  An example is shown in Figure 6. The raw materials for these were gathered from the bush-like plant known as the basket willow. Besides being a source of basket making materials these plants were used as hedges around homes and farms. 

Willow baskets resemble the round rod oak baskets so popular in this area but they are much lighter in weight and more quickly and easily constructed.  No shaping or reducing the diameter of the weaving rod was necessary.  When a cut is made across the willow rod a complete stem and softer center with surrounding cortex is revealed.

Figure 7 Oak Baskets

Figure 7. Three round rod oak baskets attributed to Jacob Mentzer, Pole Cat Hill, northern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania working 1875-1930. Mentzer baskets are notable for their brightly painted rods  incorporated within the sides of the baskets. Large basket H-5 3/4”, D-11 1/2”, middle size H-5”, D-9 3/4”, small basket H-5”, D-7”.

 

Figure 8 Tools

Figure 8. Wrought iron die tools used to fashion white oak round rod weavers. Top and left are a set of pliers and an iron strip with graduated holes through which the oak rods were pulled to size them appropriately. The iron strip would have been bolted between two solid posts to anchor it. Bottom right is another version of a rod sizer that would have been driven into a workbench or heavy beam to anchor it. All were found in southeastern Pennsylvania. Pliers L-7”, long iron rod sizer L-18”, small iron rod sizer L -8 1/4”.

The round rod oak basket resembles the willow basket in form but is much sturdier and heavier in weight. The round rods used to construct the round oak baskets seen in Figure 7, are made from solid white oak wood, and not a hollow branch.

A young oak tree is selected and the cut log is further reduced to long vertical strips which are then gradually reduced in size by drawing each strip through smaller and smaller holes made in an iron die that has been solidly anchored into a log workbench. Figure 8 shows examples of these tools.

Of all the basket forms described here the oak round rod construction might be considered the iconic Pennsylvania German form. It has been said that if there is a hard way to do something, the Pennsylvania German will do it! Perhaps this is a good illustration of that thought. Making an oak basket took patience, strength and perseverance. But the end result was a sturdy serviceable object used in the home and on the farm.

Figure 9 Field Baskets with Handles

Figure 9. Two white oak single handled baskets, southeastern Pennsylvania. The left basket has a rounded bottom and is 6” high and 9 1/4” long. The right basket with red colored weavers, has an indented, orsch backe, or buttocks-shape and measures 4 1/2” high and 4 1/4” long. These examples are relatively small, but large field baskets may measure several feet in length.

Another common group of baskets found in this area of Pennsylvania is a form referred to by many names depending on variations in shape. Known as buttocks, cheek, melon, potato, and orsch backe (with many spelling variations) baskets, they have a single handle and were made in many sizes from large field versions to smaller egg baskets and even tiny examples probably made as gifts or presentations. Figure 9 shows two small versions. They were usually made of white oak splints but sometimes were constructed using twigs and other materials.

Figure 10 Braided Straw Basket

Figure 10. Braided ryestraw basket with solid wooden base found in Manheim, Pennsylvania. This relatively uncommon type of basket is a form occasionally seen in southeastern Pennsylvania and is similar in its braided or plaited construction to summer hats that were worn by the Pennsylvania Germans. H-10”, L-13”.

A less common form of Pennsylvania basket weaving is the braided straw variety seen in Figure 10. The straw was flattened, braided into long strips and sewn together, usually by machine. The technique results in a thin pliable material which was usually built upon a solid wooden base to give it stability.

This material and technique was primarily used in the production of hats. During the 18th and 19th centuries both men and women wore summer hats of braided straw.

The basket weaving techniques employing coiled ryestraw, round oak rods, and braided straw are particularly associated with southeastern Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania German population and represent another interesting facet of this culture. Books and a magazine article on this subject, that may be of further interest to the reader, are listed below:

Larason, Lew. The Basket Collectors Book. Chalfont, Pennsylvania: Scorpio Publications, 1978.

Lasansky, Jeannette. Willow, Oak & Rye: Basket Traditions of Pennsylvania, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Union County Oral Traditions Projects, 1978.

_____. “Pennsylvania-German round-rod oak baskets” The Magazine Antiques. April 1984.

Teleki, Gloria Roth. The Baskets of Rural America, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1975.

Schiffer, Nancy. Baskets, Exton, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1984.