Splint Basket Industry

Traditionally, Nipmuc people would have make baskets for their own family use, but European colonization and the fur trade changed the way Nipmucs had to support their families. With the growing dependence on European goods and a cash economy through the 1700's and 1800's, many families chose to earn money making and selling splint baskets.

"Once the basket tradition entered these communities, it never left" (McFeat)

Baskets were more easily made with metal tools that Natives bought from Europeans. Hand gauges, made of small metal blades or wires set into a wooden handle, were used by both Native and European basket makers to cut splints into even widths. As Natives traded more with Europeans, it made the job of preparing splints for baskets easier. By the 1700's when more and more splint baskets were being made, but other traditional craftwork, such as stitched birch bark baskets were becoming quite rare (Turnbaugh & Turnbaugh). Splint baskets were more time and money-saving; a single ash tree could yield a hundred baskets or more, while a birch tree might only produce a dozen (McFeat).

Carved wooden blocks were eventually used as forms to weave baskets over. By the 1800's many New England Natives used basket blocks, made in all shapes and sizes, to ensure even, standard baskets (Lester). Some baskets were made to resemble acorns, strawberries or ears of corn. Many kinds of baskets were made just for Europeans: 'wall pockets' were hung next to looms and used to store spools of thread, European style woven splint cradles and even tiny woven coverings for European sewing accessories like thimbles, scissors, pincushions.

Basket made for a Ball of Yarn
One weaver's accessory made was the Yarn-Ball Ash Splint Basket

Many individuals sold their baskets 'door to door' in their local communities; some Nipmucs probably set up arrangements with certain European families to buy their baskets. Using tools like hand gauges and carved blocks saved time and labor, and made it easier to create standardized basket forms; they also helped turn Native basket making into an industry.

Victorian resort areas popping up in the Northeast in the 1800's changed how splint baskets were bought and sold. Natives no longer had to travel door to door. "Instead Indian basket weavers and their families traveled to the summer resorts and set up shop right there" (McFeat). Eventually, non-Native middlemen produced wholesale commercial catalogues for Native-made splint baskets. Mass production for a European market standardized basket forms, but some families developed their own unique forms and decorations based on their individual reputation and for the recognition of their baskets.

Splint Basket Weaving Splint Basket Decorations