Ascertaining the original use of a particular basket is difficult. In the absence of historical documentation museums often use terms such as utility basket, carrying basket, work basket, and fruit basket. Sometimes the use is more specifically identified – apple basket, chip basket, or laundry basket. The function of the basket shown here is hard to define. Its size–an interior volume close to eleven and a half cubic feet–suggests it was a work basket or utility basket used to carry or store a large quantity of something. Its lining suggests either that whatever was put in it (e.g. wool) should not be allowed to catch on the rough strips of the uprights or weavers, or something small, such as grain, that might otherwise leak through the holes in the basket. But, even the lightest wheat bran weighs twenty pounds per cubic foot and would make the full basket weigh nearly 250 pounds.
When Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon’s founder John Williams acquired the basket in mid-November, 1950, the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire, may have been perfectly correct when they asserted the basket was used for “holding herbs and flower petals.”
One of the more interesting features of the basket, other than its size, is its lining. The bottom and lower sides of the basket are lined with a black oilcloth-like material. The upper sides are lined with cloth painted a yellow ochre color. The black cloth has a stenciled design applied over the black paint that seems at first unusual for the normally austere Shakers. An following article from the New England Farmer, and Gardener’s Journal for June 29, 1836, however, may shed light on this lining material:
“Table Covers.—The Shakers of Lebanon, N. H. are engaged in the manufacture of an article for table covers which resembles oil-cloth, but has many advantages over it, inasmuch as it is perfectly pliable, and will double as readily as linen cloth. It is made of common sheeting, painted with gum elastic and other ingredients, in a very tasteful manner, with borders of garlands, wreaths and vines, presenting an unique and very handsome appearance.” (“Table Covers,” New England Farmer, and Gardener’s Journal 14 (June 29, 1836): p. 402.)
Although this basket was acquired from the Canterbury Shakers, it’s possible it had its beginnings with the Enfield Shakers near Lebanon, New Hampshire, as many Enfield items were brought to Canterbury when Enfield was closed in 1923. If the lining material for the basket – at least the black decorated pieces – are pieces of the Shakers’ table covers, it is possible that they were either unsalable for some reason or were just not sold and found a new use in the bottom of a basket. And if they are, in fact, part of the Shaker table cover business, they are a significant, if not unique, remnant of that business.
Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is grateful to the Eugene V. and Clare Thaw Charitable Trust for their recent support for a project to photograph and catalog the basket collection.
Basket, Canterbury or Enfield, NH, ca. 1835. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 1950.4164.1.