Basket weaving is the oldest and most widespread art in the history of human civilization. Myriad cultures have practiced the craft over the centuries in their own unique, characteristic manner, from Native Americans to diverse African clans to the American Shakers. Materials utilized for baskets include reed (also known as rattan), oak, hickory, willow, grass, animal hide, hair and byproducts like porcupine quills, various woods, grasses and stems—basically anything that can be plied, bent and woven.
The exact beginnings of basket weaving are unknown due to the typically decomposable, organic materials, but the oldest known basket fragment has been carbon-dated to about 17,000 BCE. The earliest wares were receptacles for food and grains, traded as currency and used in religious ceremonies. They were equally valued by early Americans as well; in 1993, archeologists working in the Olympic National Park of Washington state found a remnant of a basket that was dated to 2,900 BCE.
The most famous basket maker is Dat-so-la-lee (1829-1925), a.k.a. Louisa Keyser, of the Washoe tribe in Nevada. Her work was highly publicized and sold to a wide market. A basket made by Dat So La Lee fetched as much as $25,000 at auction.
Pack baskets, woven containers originally used by early indigenous American peoples to carry game, fish and gathered fruit, were slung over the back, leaving the hands free. This simple design was later adopted by early settlers and hunters who began inhabiting the mountainous areas of New York state, Vermont and Maine. Today, these are colloquially referred to as “Adirondack pack baskets” due to their use by outdoorsmen and women in this region, especially in the Adirondack mountains.
A traditional Adirondack pack basket is woven with wood harvested from the interior of the Black Ash tree. This particular species yields splints that are satiny in finish and have the ability to withstand moisture. First, a suitable tree growing straight and free of knots, must be identified. The harvested logs are then pounded into 10-foot strips that are scraped smooth. Finally, the strips are woven together into the desirable bowed shape, with a protruding “belly” to maximize the volume of objects that can be carried. These original packs made by Native Americans had woven straps of grass; settlers and hunters preferred theirs with leather or webbed fabric harnesses called “Shaker straps” which ensured a comfortable yet secure fit.
With the perfection of plastics in the 1950s, the widespread popularity of natural baskets eventually declined. Still, the benefits of these light, pliable, durable containers continue to be held in high regard throughout the rural Northeast. These days, they can even be found on the backs of city dwellers who use them to carry their heirloom tomatoes and pixie tangerines from the local farmers’ market.