On a trip this week to the historic city of Charleston, SC I had a chance to visit the iconic Charleston City Market where I purchased several authentic, handmade sweetgrass baskets. By chatting with several of the local African American artisans I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the centuries-old African tradition of sweetgrass basket making and how this craft is being kept alive in South Carolina.
If you spend any significant amount of time in Charleston, it would be hard not to notice the sweetgrass baskets. These baskets represent a strong historical link to South Carolina's past and are also a favorite item for purchase by the many tourists and native South Carolinians alike. From the crudely-built, wood-framed roadside stands dotting the Highway 17 approach through the Mount Pleasant area and into Charleston proper, to the many artisans at the bustling downtown Charleston City Market, sweetgrass baskets of all shapes, sizes, and price points are on display and available for purchase.
At the Charleston City Market, you can watch as skilled crafters construct sweetgrass baskets from varying combinations of the requisite raw materials: sweetgrass, saw palmetto leaves, and brown longleaf pine needles. From what I've observed during my visit, these artisans are eager to share their personal stories of how they came to learn and preserve the tradition of making sweetgrass baskets.
The baskets that can be seen at the Charleston markets and at the many roadside stands are typically crafted in the circularly-coiled weaving style of the Sierra Leonean shuku blai. These baskets are just one example of the preservation of an important African tradition that was introduced to the United States as a result of the slave trade that occured during the late 1600s, throughout the 1700s, and well into the 19th century.
Gullah Geechee Tradition
Gullah Geechee is the name given to the African Americans who are the direct descendants of those slaves who were brought to the coastal areas (i.e. the lowcountry) of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. These slaves were transported to the southeastern US (often via entry into Port Charleston) to replicate the rice cultivation practices that had been well established for thousands of years prior in Western Africa. Today, many of these descendants maintain much of their African culture as well as the Gullah language which is a mixture of English and creole, combined with many words of African origin.
On your visit to Charleston you could certainly just purchase a sweetgrass basket and call it a day. But if you take the initiative to chat with a sweetgrass basket maker, there's a good chance they will be glad to tell you more about their craft and the rich history behind it. I learned how the art of sweetgrass basket making has been passed down through generations, often by making it mandatory for young children (mostly female) to spend time learning the craft from a very early age. One maker I talked with described how, as a young girl, she was expected to first work in the family garden, then complete her school work and, after dinner she would gradually be taught the skills needed for sweetgrass basket making. Young children would often start out by learning to make the basket bottoms, due to their lower level of difficulty.
You'll also learn about the British colonization of Georgia and SC and how the desire to cultivate rice in the surrounding lowcountry tidal basins became a reality in the 18th century, largely made possible by the slave trade that was sourced from various locations in Africa known as the "Rice Coast" or "Windward Coast" (i.e. what is now known as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea).
Being farmers, many of these slaves had a working knowledge of rice cultivation and the British exploited this, at the expense of the slave population. One of the main uses of the circularly-
woven baskets was as a tool for winnowing, which is the process of manually tossing rice up into the air to help separate the rice grains from the chaff.
The rice crop introduction to Georgia and the Carolinas during the 1700s was made possible by the large influx of slaves from throughout Western Africa, and this mixture of African cultures in the lowcountry served to formulate and strengthen the Gullah culture. Additionally, the extremely humid conditions in the summer months, along with the standing water required for rice farming brought with it mosquitos and a number of diseases like yellow fever and malaria. The affluent white plantation owners could often afford to move elsewhere during summertime and would often leave more trusted slaves to oversee the rice farming. This separation served to even further solidify the Gullah culture.
There is a very rich history on this subject, so please check out some of the references below to learn more.
Sweetgrass baskets are made entirely of plant based materials of ancient origin. These plants were abundant in the parts of Africa where these baskets were originally made, and it so happened that the lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina also had a similar climate and similar plants that could be gathered and dried for use in basket making. The lowcountry slaves thus welcomed the fact that these materials were available, as it helped them to maintain a strong cultural connection to life in their true homeland.
Although originally made from hearty bullrush, the 19th century saw more frequent use of local sweetgrass, palmetto fronds, and even longleaf pine needles for its use in adding color and contrast to the design patterns of the baskets. There are some recent reports that, due to land development, finding local sources of sweetgrass is becoming more difficult and requires traveling farther distances.
Sweetgrass is a fine-leafed marsh grass typically found within the SC Lowcountry. It's harvested in the spring and summer months by pulling on the slender shoots until they slip out from their roots. After several days of drying in the sun the sweetgrass is ready to be used.
The old saying: "you get what you pay for" certainly applies to sweetgrass baskets. For example a small, round basket about 6-8 inches in diameter and about 2-3 inches tall might cost around $30-40 USD. Of course, more elaborate designs and larger sizes can command much higher prices. It's easy to find such examples selling for several hundreds of dollars. Sweetgrass basket making is a labor-intensive task which requires an exacting discipline and often many hours to complete.
The hallmark of a skilled craftsperson is one who takes the time to produce a very tight weave which results in a very sturdy basket. It is said that a highly skilled artisan could weave a basket tight enough to hold water. And being made of materials that grow in and around marshland, these baskets are able to withstand getting wet, as would typically be required to clean a basket. The claim is that sweetgrass baskets, if properly cared for, can be handed down through generations.
Roadside Stands Along Highway 17
On the drive into and out of Charleston via Highway 17, you'll see many roadside stands where the crafters make and sell their sweetgrass baskets. In the summer months they're often wearing wide-brimmed hats and/or tucked away in the shade of an umbrella at the back of the stand. There is even a famous 7-mile stretch of Highway 17 that is known as Sweetgrass Basket Maker's Highway.
Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge
In 1929, the opening of the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge (since then demolished and replaced by the striking Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge) and later road paving in 1931 served to connect Charleston to Mount Pleasant. The ensuing traffic to and from Charleston provided a stream of potential customers and thus the sweetgrass basket maker's business model of roadside stands evolved. Back then, Highway 17 was a two-lane roadway with ample places for drivers to pull off the road and stop at the stands. Today, Highway 17 is three lanes in each direction with narrow shoulders and much higher traffic volumes and speeds. This has made for a potentially dangerous situation for the proprietors of these roadside stands and their prospective customers.
Charleston City Market
Established in the 1790s, the Charleston City Market spans four city blocks, starting with the Market Hall building which faces onto Market Street. Throughout the 19th century the market served as a common meeting place for local farmers and ranchers to sell beef, seafood, and produce. Today, the series of separate and contiguous market sheds that traverse these 4 blocks showcase all likes of souvineers, food, clothing, and of course many choices for the purchase of sweetgrass baskets.
Sweetgrass Baskets I Purchased
Below are several pictures of the sweetgrass baskets I recently purchased. I hope you enjoyed this introduction to some of the rich history of sweetgrass baskets and their makers
To learn more about the Gullah people and their history, a good starting point is the Wikipedia Gullah page which also links to many other references.
NOTE: All images @cognoscere, except as otherwise sourced.