Sweetgrass basketmaking has been part of the Charleston heritage for more than 300 years.
Brought to the area by slaves who came from West Africa, basketmaking is a traditional art form which has been passed down from generation to generation. Today, it is one of the oldest art forms of African origin in the United States. Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, an old village and modern suburb on the north side of Charleston Harbor, is allegedly the only place where this particular type of basketry is still practiced. Here, the descendants of slaves from West Africa continue the tradition.
During the days of slavery, rice cultivation, and the flourishing plantations of the Old South, these baskets were in great demand for agricultural purposes. They also brought extra income to slave owners, who often sold baskets to other plantation owners.
For the most part, they were used to collect and store vegetables, staples, etc. Men made these large baskets from marsh grasses called "bulrush". A common form which evolved during this era was the winnowing basket (rice basket) called the "fanner." Other agricultural baskets were for grain storage, cotton, fish and shellfish.
Functional baskets for everyday living in the home were made by women. Some of these were made for bread, fruits, sewing, clothes, storage, etc. They were made from the softer, pliable grass commonly called sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes), because of its fragrance, similar to the smell of fresh hay.
My grandmother owns a few that are VERY OLD. Probably around 100 years. I love to watch the people in the "slave market" (as they call it, even though there was never a slave sold here) make these beautiful pieces of art. A few weeks ago when we visited I purchased a trash bin sized basket. (at least thats what its purpose will be)
Below is a picture I had taken on a different trip to Charleston back in 2008.
To me, sweetgrass baskets is a very southern decorative item, especially since my ancestors are from Charleston.
I think that just about everyone in my family owns a sweetgrass basket and if your from the "Old South" you probably should too!