Origins of Indian Basket Collecting

"Rosenberg's store window display of indian baskets" Chico, CA c. 1912.  Image courtesy of Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, and Special Collections Dept. Meriam Library, CSU, Chico 1909

"Rosenberg's store window display of indian baskets" Chico, CA c. 1912.  Image courtesy of Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, and Special Collections Dept. Meriam Library, CSU, Chico 1909

Indian basketry in California goes back thousands of years, and is among the most ancient of Native American art forms.  Baskets were woven in shapes specific to their intended function and put to work holding water, cooking, gathering or storing food, and carrying children, to name only a few uses.  Basketry was usually the work of women, who groomed and gathered native materials from the surrounding landscape. It is especially interesting to note that California Indian women from various tribes traded baskets among themselves prior to 1890.  After that time, however, many more baskets were created specifically for the tourist trade.  

Mono woman with burden basket, Owens Valley, CA c. 1885-1901 Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center

Mono woman with burden basket, Owens Valley, CA c. 1885-1901 Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Indian basket collecting became so intense among wealthy Americans that Smithsonian curator Otis Mason coined the term “canastromania” to describe what others called the “basket craze.”   (Canistra is the Latin root meaning basket).  Interest in Indian baskets was encouraged by the Arts & Crafts movement with its emphasis on the handmade, and home decorating magazines of the period recommended displaying baskets and other Native American items to lend “charm” to a corner of one’s home.  Additionally, American nativism combined with a sense of concern about vanishing races engendered a sense of urgency for those collecting baskets as ethnographic objects. Many of the Native American baskets found today in museum collections around the world were gathered during this early and intense period of collecting.  

Maidu Basketry Tray, c. 1910.  Private Collection.

Maidu Basketry Tray, c. 1910.  Private Collection.

If you are interested in learning more about the remarkable art of Native American basketry, I recommend checking the collections of a museum near you.  If you are in the Chico area, Bidwell Mansion has some remarkable examples of Maidu basketry.  Ralph Shanks has written several volumes divided by region on the subject of California Indian Baskets 

which areboth interesting and very detailed.  Alternatively, attending the “Art of the Americas” show--an annual event usually held in February at the Marin Center in San Rafael, California--is lots of fun.