Basket, a vessel made of twigs, cane or rushes, as well as of a variety of other materials, interwoven together, and used for holding, protecting or carrying any commodity. The process of interweaving twigs, rushes or leaves, is practised among the rudest nations of the world; and as it is one of the most universal of arts, so also does it rank among the most ancient industries, being probably the origin of all the textile arts of the world. Decorative designs in old ceramic ware are derived from the marks left by the basket mould used before the invention of the potter's wheel, and in the willow pattern on old china, and the basket capitals or mouldings of Byzantine architecture, the influence of the basketmaker's art is clearly traceable. Essentially a primitive craft, its relative importance is in inverse ratio to the industrial development of a people.
The word "basket" has been generally identified with the Latin bascauda, as in Martial (xiv. 99): -
"Barbara de pictis veni bascauda Britannis:
Sed me iam mavult dicere Roma suam."
But its etymology is unknown, and the New English Dictionary states that there is no evidence to connect basket with bascauda, which denotes rather a tub, tray or brazen vessel.
Among many uncivilized tribes, baskets of a superior order are made and applied to various useful purposes. The North American Indians prepare strong water-tight Wattape baskets from the roots of a species of abies, and these they frequently adorn with very pretty patterns made from the dyed quills of their native porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum. Wealthy Americans have formed collections of the beautiful ware treasured as heirlooms in Indian families, and large prices have been paid for baskets made by the few squaws who have inherited the traditions and practice of the art, as much as £300 having been given for one specimen. It has been computed that baskets to the value of £1,000,000 were recently drawn from California and Arizona within two years. The Indians of South America weave baskets equally useful from the fronds of the Carnahuba and other palms. The Kaffirs and Hottentots of South Africa are similarly skilful in using the Ilala reed and the roots of plants; while the Abyssinians and the tribes of Central Africa display great adroitness in the art of basket-weaving.
Basket-making, however, has by no means been confined to the fabrication of those simple and useful utensils from which its name is derived. Of old, the shields of soldiers were fashioned of wicker-work, either plain or covered with hides. Xenophon, in his story of the Thirty Tyrants at Athens, relates that the exiled Greeks who had seized on the Peiraeus made themselves shields of whitened osiers; and similar weapons of defence are still constructed by modern savages. The huts of the earliest settlers in Rome and in western Europe generally were made of osier work plastered with clay. Some interesting remains of British dwellings of this nature found near Lewes in 1877 were described by Major-General H. L. F. Pitt-Rivers in Archaeologia, vol. xlvi. pp. 456-458. Boats of the same material, covered with the skins of animals, attracted the notice of the Romans in Britain; they seem to have been of the ordinary boat-shape. The basketwork boats mentioned by Herodotus as being used on the Tigris and Euphrates were round and covered with bitumen. Boats of this shape are still used on these rivers, and boats of analogous construction are employed in crossing the rivers of India, in which the current is not rapid. Nor have methods of making much changed.
The strokes employed in the construction of basket-work found in Etruscan tombs and now exhibited in the Museo Etrusco at Florence, and in similar articles discovered in Egyptian tombs, are the same as those used by the English basket-maker to-day. General Pitt-Rivers, on comparing the remains excavated near Lewes with a modern hamper in his possession, found the method to be identical.
Since about the middle of the 19th century the character of basket-work in England has been greatly modified. The old English cradle, reticule, and other small domestic wares, have been driven out of the market by cheap goods made on the continent of Europe, and the coarse brown osier packing and hampers have been largely superseded by rough casks and cases made from cheap imported timber. This loss has, however, been more than counterbalanced by the production of work of a higher class, such as finely made chairs, tables, lounges and other articles of furniture; luncheon and tea-baskets and similar requisites of travel. In addition to the foregoing the chief categories of English manufacture are: vegetable and fruit baskets, transit and travelling hampers, laundry and linen baskets, partition baskets for wine, and protective wicker cases for fragile ware such as glass carboys, stone and other bottles. Wicker shields or cases made from cane pith, for the protection of shells, have been introduced by the English military authorities.
Some evidence of the above-mentioned developments is afforded by a comparison of the wages lists of the London Union of Journeymen Basketmakers issued in 1865 and in 1896. The former consists of 87 printed pages; the latter of 144 pages, and these more closely set.
No machinery is used in basket-making. A considerable training and natural aptitude go to form the expert workman, for the ultimate perfection of shape and beauty of texture depend upon the more or less perfect conception of form in the craftsman's mind and on his power to impress it on a recalcitrant material. In England at least, he rarely uses a mould; every stroke made has a permanent effect on the symmetry of the whole work and no subsequent pressure will alter it. Wages in London vary from 25s. to 50s. per week according to aptitude. The Basketmakers' Company is one of the oldest craft gilds of the city of London and still exists.