LOWCOUNTRY SWEETGRASS BASKETS
Along the drive from the Georgetown, South Carolina area into Charleston, you pass your fair share of Spanish moss covered ancient oaks, swamps, and everything in between. Yet, when you near the community of Mount Pleasant, along with the fresh seafood markets and produce stands, you will find sweetgrass basket makers weaving and selling their treasures to interested passers by. These baskets are exceptionally beautiful and this art form is still flourishing in the Low Country. Not only are they sold at roadside stands but they can also be found in the City Market and on the streets of Charleston.
The History of Low Country Sweetgrass Artistry:
The art of basket making was introduced to the Lowcountry in the 17th Century by Africans taken from the present day Mano River Region, Senegambia and Angola- Congolese regions of West Africa. Brought by white planters to cultivate rice, enslaved Africans brought basket making skills as well. The early history of basket making parallels the rise of rice cultivation on the Southeastern coast of the United States. Enslaved Africans, usually men, made baskets for use on the plantation and for sale. On some plantations basket making was a seasonal chore. On other plantations enslaved Africans who were no longer able to work in the fields made baskets. Work baskets used in plantation households and in rice cultivation were made by men out of bulrush or rush.
The Civil War and Emancipation brought a transformation in sweetgrass basket making. Women began making smaller baskets from sweetgrass for storing and serving food to be used in their own households as well as on plantations. Basket making evolved from an agricultural craft to an art form produced for sale. The Mt. Pleasant (East of the Cooper) Community, just north of Charleston, where landed Black families began mass producing and selling show baskets made of sweetgrass, was central to this evolution. By the 20th Century, basket makers were sewing for mail order catalogues and gift shops owned by white businessmen, many of whom were from the Northeast. Merchants and middlemen modified the basketmaking tradition by buying baskets attractive to tourist and other consumers.
Today, basketmaking is centered in the Mt. Pleasant community. Basket stands along Hwy 17 North allow basket makers to compete with retail markets, establish a direct contact between themselves and their patrons and develop new shapes from traditional baskets forms and ordinary objects. Basket makers living east of the Cooper River can also be found downtown Charleston, along Market, Broad, and Meeting Streets.
Basket making has become an art form practiced and controlled by women who no longer perform domestic and other work outside of their homes. The economic independence the basket making affords professional basket makers to work in their homes and make baskets. Men remain the primary gathers of sweetgrass and their materials. Although the economic prosperity of tourism has been good for basket making, changes in ownership and use of land threatens the natural resources and human communities. Compiled by the staff of the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston.