A BRIEF HISTORY OF BASKET MAKING

A series of pages about the history of basket making, with special reference to the willow baskets made in Somerset, and in particular the Stoke St Gregory area.

1. Covered Baskets

The term ‘demi-john’ will be familiar to amateur wine makers and others as the glass jar, holding about a gallon, used for making and storing wine. In french it is known as the ‘dame-jeanne’, but both names derive from a much older term, denoting not the jar itself but the casing surrounding it, The greek name for the basketry concerned is ‘damitzana’ and is associated with the arabic word ‘damagan’. Even early Egyptians had covered their bottles with papyrus. Apart from the protection given by the wicker covering, it enabled a flat base for a handblown glass jar with a round bottom. Other variations of the name are the italian ‘damigiana’, hungarian ‘demizson’, etc.

Handles could be integral to the jar on the basketry covering. The user’s or manufacturer’s name was also often etched on the shoulder of the jar. As more liquids were transported and exported during the 18th & 19th Centuries, the demand for bottle and jar coverings increased dramatically. At the jar factories it was children, often very young children, who were the chief workers. At the Dyottville Glassworks, Philadelphia, the Episcopal Reader, January 25th, 1834, reported: “Nearly four hundred persons are employed in the various branches of the business, 130 of whom are apprentice boys. The youngest are employed in making wicker-work to cover bottles.”

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Coates’ museum is lucky to have two navy rum jars in its collection. On the basketry the use is indicated by the band of red paint. Other colours denoted other (undrinkable) liquids. On the jar itself, the letters ‘S.R.D.’ stand for ‘Supply Reserve Depot’. Other interpretations of the letters have included ‘Seldom Reaches Destination’, ‘Service Rum Diluted’, and ‘Soon Runs Dry’. Members of all services on active service could be issued with 2.5 fluid ounces per day at the discretion of the commanding officer.

In 1898 a single Bremen glass works  (Hermann and Henry Stoevesandt) produced 12,000,000 bottles, 400,000 demijohns, and 100,000 stoneware jugs - all hand made and many covered in wickerwork. As in so many other areas of the industrial revolution the demand for basketry was huge. These industrial developments could simply not have happened without the work of the willow growers and basket makers.

Reusable containers for single jars or packs of multiple jars, both glass and stoneware, were also in great demand. These would be used to transport liquids for use elsewhere. The container would often depend on the type of transport, from partitioned arm baskets to padded boxes that could be dropped by parachute.

Covers were also used for refillable containers that could be carried on carts to dispense measured amounts of liquids as in this example with a stoneware tap. In some cases the cover was woven to leave an open section to make an etched scale visible.

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Finer work is seen on smaller bottles, often those used to to hold spirits, other drinks, or perfumes. These are sometimes very decorative, using different materials, weaves, and colours. This covered bottle is from a picnic hamper. The traditional round bottomed chianti bottle was also enclosed in a woven straw wrapping with a ‘foot’, and there is evidence that the name of the bottle - ‘fiasco’ - from the more generic ‘flask’, is derived from a much earlier brythonic word which led to the modern welsh words ‘fflasg’ meaning basket and ‘fflasged’ - a small basket containing food taken to the field by farm workers

   The ‘Winchester’ bottle had various uses, but a set of these cases was made specifically to accommodate and transport water samples. The casing would protect them on their journey from source to laboratory for quality testing. The finished basket has a diameter of 20 cm and is 40 cm high.

    The 6” base is constructed using 3 + 2 split stakes. After 6 rounds of wale the sides are fine randed to 13” plus a 4 rod border on top. It has a 3 rod border foot. The lid is randed on 3 + 3 tied, with a 3 rod border to finish. It has a metal hinge and leather handle on the lid, but there is no lid fastening.

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