Context: it’s everything, right? We so dislike our statements taken out of context. But what about our clothes? They make statements, too, and so do our accessories.
A friend noticed that market baskets were fairly prominent carriers used by reenactors portraying the Boston gentry greeting L’Hermione this past weekend, and asked, “What gives? Is there something I missed?”
There are two images that people often turn to in documenting these baskets:
The Farmer’s Return, by Zoffany
The Harlot’s Progress, Plate 1
In both of these, the context is working class and food-oriented. As my friend asked, “Are these floppy baskets for floppy birds?”
Two images from 1740 to 1760 aren’t a lot of documentation to go on for 1775-1783, so I checked the Rhode Island newspapers for 1770-1790, searching for “basket.” No mention in ads, but “baskets of grapes” appeared in stories, and a mention of Chinese dogs in cotton-lined baskets (apparently the “basket dog” is the 18th century equivalent of today’s purse dog).
As satisfying as basket-dogs might be, they’re not helpful in this instance.
The Yale Center for British Art helpfully adds keywords or tags to their catalog records, which allows one to look for “basket.” Aside from The Farmer’s Return, this ovoid, market-basket form isn’t really seen. What is seen?
For one thing, not many upper-class women carrying baskets, or any kind of burden or bundle. A woman carrying a kind of ovoid basket over her arm is shopping for food, not perambulating.
The upper class girl with her father has an open basket full of flowers (hint: probably symbolic) which appears to be made of what we lump into “wicker,” in an open design. (BTW, that’s not a pinner apron; zoom in and you will see shoulder straps. Fight at your leisure.)
In the most class-appropriate image, The Virtuous Comforted by Sympathy, the workbasket at the woman’s feet is a tidy, round form with a lid, more similar to Nantucket baskets* than to market baskets. It really doesn’t look like the kind of thing you’d leave home with. It’s a sewing basket.
On balance, I think it appears that public basket carrying is more suited to carrying foodstuffs than personal items, and that the most common use of baskets in this period is to collect and carry food, whether from a greengrocer, fish stall, or gathering apples— at least if you are trying to be quite precise in the use of documented accessories. If you’re using a market basket to carry food, you do so knowing that it’s only (thus far) documented to England, and that the handles must be woven and not leather riveted to the side.
The material from which the baskets are made is another question altogether, along with the proper woven form. As I noted to my friend, I don’t care that much. And why?
Pockets, of course. My enormous pockets contain multitudes, sometimes even camera and water bottle along with wallet and phone, even if that much stuff distorts the line of my skirts somewhat. I can also fit my knitting in a pocket, and a slim, if dangerous novel (perhaps Moll Flanders). For carrying more than that, a wallet is probably best, or a cloth bag, or a portmanteau. But for a day in town, even if you’re a lady, you can carry quite as much in your pockets as I can as Bridget, though of course of a better quality.
* I am not advocating carrying Nantucket baskets, to be quite clear.