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“A Light, Limp Basket For Carrying...

Five Centuries of Construction, Presence, & Use

Mark A. Turdo

A 1753 dictionary defined a basket as, “a well known utensil.”1 Like other familiar items
baskets easily escaped being recorded, described, or named. If a basket form has a name it is often one
bestowed by collectors and curators, not by their historical makers or users. Anyone who researches
baskets can quickly become frustrated by their universal, yet seemingly-anonymous presence.
Nevertheless baskets are found throughout the historic record helping people do various tasks.
One common basket form, and the object of the present study, seems to have been used across centuries
and national borders. It is strong and flexible, has several names, and seemingly no end of uses.
Although they were common, flexible baskets have not attracted much attention from
researchers. Kenneth E. Turner's article, “The Humble Tool Bass, the Tote, and the Toat" is the only
full-length study found so far. A brief overview of flexible baskets were included in at least two tool
dictionaries. More recently a living-history blogger published two separate posts about them and
another living-history related researcher included a few images of them in an online slide show
featuring baskets in eighteenth-century America and Britain.2
Though there is little secondary source material to draw on and primary source references are
scattered over time and place, as will be seen, there is sufficient material to establish a basic outline of
the construction, presence, and use of these baskets. Fortunately, the Internet makes this kind of deep
and broad research possible. This study relies on primary sources published online, including art work,
early dictionaries, trade manuals, advice books, tool catalogs, and newspaper advertisements.
Despite the accessibility of numerous sources, the present work suffers from the most common
and unfortunate deficiency any material culture study can have: a lack of extant examples. Therefore, it
is meant to be a beginning, and not the final word.
This study includes sections on the construction, names, uses, contents, carriage, and contexts
of flexible baskets. To make it easier to delve into the research footnotes have been chosen over
endnotes. Also two appendices of period images have been included (“Appendix A – Tool Baskets” and
“Appendix B – Domestic and Retail Baskets”).
1 A Pocket Dictionary, or Complete English expositor (London: J. Newberry, 1753), see BASKET, .
2 Kenneth E. Turner, “The Humble Tool Bass, the Tote, and the Toat" in The Chronicle of Early American Industries
Association Volume 51 No. 2 (June 1998): 87-90. R.A. Salaman, The Dictionary of Woodworking Tools, (New York:
Scribner, 1974; repr., Mendham, NJ: Astragal Press, 1997), 486-487; Alvin Sellers, Dictionary of American Hand Tools:
A Pictorial Synopsis (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2002), 490. For recent living history-related posts see Kitty
Calash, “Context is Critical,” Kitty Calash (blog), July 15, 2015,;
Kitty Calash, “Mind the Gap, or, The Basket Case,” Kitty Calash (blog), July 22, 2015,; Gregory Theberge, “English And American
Baskets,” July 29, 2015, The 18th Century Material Culture Resource Center,


The form of flexible baskets remained generally unchanged over time and place. The opening is
either round or oval and it tapers to a narrow base. Handles are located in the center of the long sides.
When held by the handles the weight of the contents causes the flexible sides to envelope whatever is

All flexible baskets share a similar profile to this
example. Detail of Appendix B16
While the basket's outline and flexible nature were consistent throughout time, there were
variations in the details.
These baskets were made from strong, flexible materials. Eighteenth-century sources suggest
they were made from rush. By the very beginning of the nineteenth century bass or bast (bark from the
lime, linden, or basswood trees) was being used as well. Rush and bass baskets were woven in the
round or were made from coils of plaited strips. At the end of the nineteenth century canvas baskets
were introduced. All three types, rush, bass, and canvas, were produced through the opening years of
the twentieth century.3

For rush-made baskets see Abel Boyer, The Royal Dictionary Abridged In Two Parts (London: J. & J. Knapton, 1728),
see Jonchée dr Créme.;
Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, Vol. 1 (London: W. Strahan, 1755), see FRAIL,; Daniel Fenning, The Royal
English Dictionary; Or, A Treasury of the English Language, 3rd Ed. (London: R. Baldwin, 1768), see FRAIL,; Daniel Fenning, The Royal
English Dictionary: or, A Treasury of the English Language, 5th Ed. (London: L. Hawes, 1775), see FRAIL,; James Barclay, A Complete
and Universal English Dictionary (London: G.G. & J. Robinson, 1799), see FRAIL,
id=a6MRAAAAIAAJ&pg=PT435#v=onepage&q&f=true; The New Encyclopædia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts and
Sciences, Volume X (London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807), 14,; James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips, A Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial


Constructing a coiled flexible basket, c. 1817 Egypt.
Detail from "Arts et métiers. 1. Le faiseur de nattes; 2. Le faiseur de couffes." New York Public Library Digital

Most baskets had two loop handles located in the middle of the long sides at the rim, though
single-handled examples are found among some early sources. Coiled baskets often had their handles
formed from short lengths of the top strip left unattached. Baskets woven in the round had their handles
attached once the body was finished.4

Words, Obsolete Phrases, Vol. 1, 2nd Ed. (London: John Russel Smith, 1852), 377,
id=08kRAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA377#v=onepage&q&f=true; J.B. Alden, Alden's Manifold Cyclopedia of Knowledge and
Language, Volume 15 (New York: John B. Alden, 1889), 233,
id=jghDAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA233#v=onepage&q&f=true. See also Image A23 for a 1925 advertisement for rush
baskets. The earliest reference to a flexible basket being made of bass comes from Henry Neumann, A New Dictionary
of the Spanish and English Languages, Vol. 1 (London: Vernor, et al, 1802), see CAPAZO: Large frail or basket made of
bass and CAPAZON: Very large frail made of bass,
id=9o04AAAAYAAJ&pg=PT190#v=onepage&q&f=false. For canvas-bodied baskets see Image A 19 (1897
advertisement), Image A22 (1925 advertisement), and Image A23 (1938 advertisement).
4 For examples of single handled basket see Images B1, B2, B3, B8, and B31; For coiled baskets see Images A9, A16, B3,
B9, B12, B16, B17, B18, B19, B24, B25, B26, B29, B30, B31, B33, B39, B40, B41, and B42.


Applied loop handles. Detail
from Image A7

Unattached length of plaited material
forming a handle. Detail of Image A9

Occasionally the baskets were reinforced with a long support strap which ran from one handle
under the basket to the other handle. Some examples after 1839 show handles and support straps made
from cloth or leather. Support straps could be single (running between the middle of the handles) or
double (running from each handle point under to the other handles).5

Single support
strap. Detail of
Image A27.

Double support straps running from handle to handle
underneath the basket. Detail of Image A17

The visual sources found in both Appendices below show a variety of sizes among eighteenthcentury baskets. It would be easy to assume these earlier baskets had no standardized sizing. However,
it's use as a “frail” (one name for these baskets as well as a specific weight of dried fruit) suggests there
was some standardization in sizing before the nineteenth century.6
From the 1850s and after tool baskets were, “made of different sizes.”7 By the end of the
5 For cloth or leather bound baskets see Images A13, A15, A16, A17, B11, B12, B26, B29, B30, B33, B35, B40, and B41.
For single support straps see Images A2, A7, A17, B1, B2, B27, B39, and B41.For double support straps see Images A3,
A15, A17, A18, A19, A20, A21, A22, A23, B13, B14 (?), B29, B30, B33, B35, and B40.
6 See footnote 12 below for more information on “frails” as a standardized weight.
7 Peter Lund Simmonds, The Dictionary of Trade Products, Manufacturing, and Technical Terms (London: Routledge
Company, 1858), 384,
Also quoted in the 1872 edition, 384,


century standardized sizes were being offered. An 1895 advertisement said, “These tool-baskets are
sold in five sizes, denoted by numbers, namely, No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5....”8 Two years later in 1897 an
advertisement for tool baskets says their middle-sized basket was 21 inches around or 33 inches when
flattened by carrying tools.9
Twentieth-century advertisements list more detailed dimensions. A 1925 ad includes a similar
numbering system as seen in the 1895 advertisement, but they printed the measurements for each of
their three flexible basket styles:10
Tool Baskets
#2 – 27 inches
#3 – 30 inches
#4 – 33 inches
#5 – 36 inches
#6 – 39 inches

Canvas Bags
#2 – 25 inches
#3 – 29 inches
#4 – 31 inches
#5 – 34 inches
#6 – 36 inches

Workman's Bag
30 inches
33 inches
36 inches

Finally a 1938 advertisement offers canvas tool bags in yet another range of sizes:11
#1 – 23 inches
#2 – 27 inches
#3 – 30 inches
#4 – 33 inches
#5 – 36 inches
#6 – 39 inches
Based on these ads, flexible baskets could range anywhere from 21 to 39 inches (presumably
this is the round/empty measurement). The mid-range sizes were most often suggested so one could
avoid, “the Scylla of one that is too small and the equally objectionable Charybdis of one too large.”12
Which means, based on the measurements above, a basket of around 30 inches was thought to be the
most useful, at least as a tool carrier.
Before the middle of the nineteenth century most baskets appear to be unlined. Linings were
always associated with tool baskets, which will be discussed further below.
8 Francis Chilton-Young, Home Carpentry For Handy Men. (London: Ward, Lock, & Bowden, Limited, 1895), 79,
9 Wood Workers' Tools: Being a Catalogue of Tools, Supplies, Machinery, and Similar Goods. (Detriot: Charles Strelinger
& company, 1897), 647,
%22&pg=PA647#v=onepage&q&f=false; See Image A19.
10 Woodworkers' Tools and Machines Catalogue, No. 25 (London: Richard Melhuish, 1925), 107,; See Image A22
11 William Marples & Sons Price List (Sheffield: Marples & Sons, 1938), 193,; See Image A23.
12 Chilton-Young, Home Carpentry, 79.


Over time flexible baskets have had several names. The three most common appears to be frail,
tool bass, and tool basket.13 All three can be found in use at various times from the eighteenth century
onward, alongside less-common names.
Frail, the earliest of the identified names, was originally defined as a nondescript basket which
held 75 pounds of raisins or figs.14 By 1728 a frail was described without the weight association as
simply “a basket of green rushes.” Frails continued to be defined as both a basket of fruit of specific
weight and “a basket made of rushes and a rush for making baskets” until the end of the nineteenth
While they were made of bass much earlier, the name bass or tool bass was not used until the
middle of the nineteenth century.16 The term bass seems to have been applied exclusively to a tool
13 Salaman, Dictionary, 486; Turner, “The Frail, Bass, Toate, and the Tote.”
14 Bailey, Etymological English Dictionary, see FRAIL; Nathanial Bailey, Dictionarium Britannicum, 2nd Ed. (London: T.
Cox, 1736), see FRAIL,;
Bevis, Pocket Dictionary, see FRAIL; John Kersey, A New Classical English Dictionary, 7th Ed.(Dublin: S. Powell,
1757), see FRAIL,; The New
Encyclopædia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume X (London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807), 14,; John Bennett, The Artificer's
Complete Lexicon, for Terms and Prices (London: John Bennett, 1833) 173,
id=GU49AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA173#v=onepage&q&f=true; Alden, Manifold Cyclopedia, 233.
15 Boyer, The Royal Dictionary, see JONCHÉE DE CRÉME; Johnson, Dictionary, see FRAIL; Fenning, Royal English
Dictionary (3d. Ed.), see FRAIL; Fenning, Royal English Dictionary (5th Ed.), see FRAIL; Barclay, Universal English
Dictionary, see FRAIL; New Encyclopædia, 14; Halliwell-Phillips, Archaic & Provincial Words, 377; Alden, Manifold
Cyclopedia, 233.
16 From the end of the seventeenth through the middle of the nineteenth centuries a bass was generally defined as a cushion
made of straw for kneeling in church, among other items. Bailey, An Universal Dictionary, see BASS,; Bailey, Dictionarium
Britannicum, see BASS,;
Kersey, Classical English Dictionary, see BASS,
id=8aNhAAAAcAAJ&pg=PT37#v=onepage&q&f=true; Johnson, Dictionary, see Bass,; Barclay, Universal English
Dictionary, see BASS,;
Halliwell-Phillips, Archaic & Provincial Words, 147,
17 John Christopher Atkinson, A Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect: Explanatory, Derivative, and Critical (London: John
Russell Smith, 1868), 31,; J.
Heinrich Blascke, A Few Steps to a Complete Dictionary of English Dialects (Hamburg: Lütcke & Wulff, 1890), 40,; Joseph Wright, The English
Dialect Dictionary, Being the Complete Vocabulary of All Dialect Words Still in Use, Or Known to Have Been in Use
During the Last Two Hundred Years, Vol. 1 (London: Henry Frowde, 1898), 178,
id=ga0yAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA178#v=onepage&q&f=true; Work: The Illustrated Weekly Journal for Mechanics, Volume
20, Number 616 January 5, 1901 (London: Cassell and Company, 1901), 413,
id=mN9EAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA413#v=onepage&q&f=true; Augustine C. Passmore, Handbook of Technical Terms
Used in Architecture and Building and Their Allied Trades and Subjects (London: Scott Greenwood & Son, 1904), 33,; Joseph Wright, ed., The


Sometimes the flexible basket used for carrying tools was called a tool
basket, carpenter's basket, or a joiner's basket. These terms were concurrent
with the term bass described above.18 However, as the image below right
shows, it can be misleading to simply accept that a basket listed as being a
From Home Carpentry
For Handy Men by
Francis Chilton-Young.

tool basket is necessarily a flexible one.
At the beginning of the twentieth century other names are also found. In
1905 a wisket was defined as, “A bass: a joiner's tool-basket.” A canvas

basket with the same profile as the rush and bass baskets was
advertised in 1925 as a “workman's bag.” Finally one source
referred to a flexible tool basket as a flail instead of frail.19
One other name, in two spellings, the tote or toat, has
been suggested. However, neither term has been found in the
period sources consulted for the present work.20
There certainly may be other names associated with this
form that have yet to be identified.

From Charles C. Miller, Fifty years
among the Bees (Medina, OH: A.1.
Root Company, 1915), 93.

English Dialect Dictionary, Volume IV. (London: Henry Frowde, 1905), 23,
id=mKw4AQAAMAAJ&pg=RA2-PA23#v=onepage&q&f=true; Woodworkers' Tools and Machines Catalogue, No. 25
(London: Richard Melhuish, 1925), 107, General Internet searches
for “tool bass” turn up images of the bassist for the alternative metal rock band Tool.
18 Simmonds, Dictionary of Trade Products, 384; Chilton-Young, Home Carpentry, 79.
19 Wiskets were generally defined as a wide, shallow, and rigid basket. For wisket as a tool basket see Joseph Wright, ed.,
The English Dialect Dictionary, Volume IV (London: Henry Frowde, 1905), 518,
id=mKw4AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA518#v=onepage&q&f=true. For wisket as a scuttle see Bailey, Etymological English
Dictionary, see WHISKER,
%20dictionary&pg=PT933#v=onepage&q&f=true; John Worlidge, A Compleat System of Husbandry and Gardening
(London: J. Pickard, 1716), 504,
id=SREAAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA504#v=onepage&q&f=false; Francis Grose, A Provincial Glossary: With a Collection of
Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions (London: S. Hooper, 1787), cxxxvi,
id=31oJAAAAQAAJ&vq=whisket&pg=PR136#v=onepage&q&f=false; Francis Grose & Samuel Pegge, A Glossary Of
Provincial and Local Words Used in England (London: John Russell Smith, 1839),181,
id=YkZgAAAAcAAJ&dq=grose%20A%20provincial%20glossary&pg=PA181#v=onepage&q&f=false; John Ray, A
Complete Collection of English Proverbs (London: T & J Allman, 1817), 257,
id=pUpgAAAAcAAJ&dq=wisket&pg=PA257#v=onepage&q&f=false ; John George Wood, The Common Objects of
the Country (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1858), 59,
id=RE0aAAAAYAAJ&vq=wisket&pg=PA59#v=onepage&q&f=false . For workman's bag see Woodworkers' Tools and
Machines Catalogue, No. 25 (London: Richard Melhuish, 1925), 107, For Flail see Wright, The English Dialect Dictionary, Volume II,
379, Wright called them a
flail-basket and flail-stick,
20 Turner, “The Humble Tool Bass, the Tote, and the Toat.”


Uses, Contents, & Carriage
Perhaps the best description of a flexible basket is as a “light, limp basket for carrying joiners'
tools, vegetables, fish, &c.”21
As all of the images in Appendix A show, the most common use for these baskets was as a tool
carrier. The earliest image found so far (Appendix Image A1) comes from the middle sixteenth century
and shows a flexible basket containing several tools. These baskets continued to be used as a tool
carrier well into the twentieth century.
Flexible baskets could hold numerous tools. In 1882 one writer described all of the tools one
could fit in a basket (of unknown proportions)
We shall get along well enough out of doors if our tool-basket contains a hand-saw,
hand-axe, mortise-chisels (1 in. and ½in.), firmer chisel1in. Or 1¼ in., mallet, hammer
(heavy enough to drive a stout nail and without claw), a pair of pincers, chalk-line and
reel, two-foot rule, three or four gimlets, a couple of augers, preferably of the old shell
pattern, ¾in. Gouge (with socket not tang for the handle), a pair of compasses, a gauge,
a square, and a carpenter's pencil. With this assortment in a strong tool-basket, nearly
any any outdoor job may be done. Advancing a step nearer to joinery, there may be
added a jack-plane, adze, smoothing-plane, which saves trouble, but can be dispenses
with for rough work. A bevel is also a very useful tool...22
By the end of the nineteenth century lined tool baskets were available. Linings, which also
allowed pockets to be sewn in, provided additional utility because
Nails and screws too in a lined basket are less capable of getting their business ends
through the basket, which is rough enough if not lined. When on the job, therefore, put
every tool you want into your basket, which, by the way, is furnished with a pocket or
pockets, which are useful for small tools...23
One author reminded his readers that even though they could hold several items, “tools should
not be bundled carelessly into a basket.”24
From the early nineteenth century onward flexible baskets came to be closely associated with
21 Sidney Oldall Addy, A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Sheffield (London: English Dialect Society,
1888), 11,
22 English Mechanics and the World of Science and Art Volume 36 Number 917 October 20, 1882. 150,
23 Chilton-Young, Home Carpentry, 79. For another advertisement for lined baskets see also Appendix Image A19, 1897,
America Detail from Wood workers' tools: being a catalogue of tools, supplies, machinery, and similar goods.
24 George Ellis, Modern Practical Joinery (London: B.T. Batsford, 1908), 30,


woodworking tradesmen. They were used on two occasions as the body of an anthropomorphic
carpenter and one journal used a stylized basket as the center-piece of its masthead.25
Flexible baskets in domestic and retail settings show a wide, and occasionally surprising,
diversity of items contained within. Along with their use as a container for dried fruit, flexible baskets
are also seen to have carried ceramics, matches and cloth, fish and fowl, vegetables, fruit, hops, quill
pens, wood, rabbits, bottles, and even babies.26
When held by the handles a full basket flattens to a long oval shape. The sides closed together
to keep whatever was inside the basket safely immobilized. The most straightforward way to carry it
was by the handles, either held in the hand or with a forearm through them. The handles can also be
tied together and hung by the tie on the forearm, though this seems to have been done exclusively by
female street vendors. Commonly a fully loaded
basket would, “be carried over the shoulder by a stick
or shovel through both handles, or [with] a piece of
sash cord....” To maximize the number of tools while
minimizing the weight long-handled tools were also
used to sling a basket over the shoulder. There were
Handles tied together and hung by the tie
over the forearm. Detail of Image B4.

even purpose-made carrying sticks which were, “a
short curved stick, used for carrying a flail-basket

over the shoulder.”27
Apart from its ability to close around the objects inside, there were two other ways to keep the
contents safe within. One was to pack delicate items in straw. The other was to sew the rim shut. One
nineteenth century story has a character, “carrying a frail, sewed up with string....” This might explain a
1770 German print which shows what appear to be flexible baskets lying on their side, yet closed.28
25 See Images A6, A12, and A21
26 For ceramics - B3; matches - B4; cloth - B5 & B20; fish see B8; goose – B7; vegetables see B6, B14, B21, B34, & B42;
fruit see B24; hops see B11; quill pens see B23; wood see B28; rabbits see B33 & B40; bottles see B39; babies see B10,
B13, & B17.
27 For carrying through handles on the forearm see Image A8. For women hanging baskets by tie on the forearm see
Images B4, B5, and B10 (this last one is an updated print of Image B4). For baskets being carried by a string or cord
over the shoulder see Images A16, A17, B35, and B41. For using a pole or stick see Images A3, B1, B14, B18, B27,
B33, and B36. For carrying by a tool see Images A4 (ax), A7 (adz), and A8 (ax). Carrying quote is from Charles
Strelinger & Company, Wood Worker's Tools: Being a Catalogue of Tools, Supplies, Machinery, and Similar Goods
(Detroit: Raynor and Taylor, 1897), 647,
%20basket%22&pg=PA647#v=onepage&q&f=false. For purpose-made carrying sticks see Wright, Dialect Dictionary,
Volume II, 379. Wright called them a flail-basket and flail-stick.
id=2YJBAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA379#v=onepage&q&f=true; For an undated, unreferenced image of a frail stick with
basket and a natural and factory-made version see Salaman, Dictionary,114-115.
28 For straw padding see Image B30; for sewing up the frail see Mary Martha Sherwood, The History of Henry Milner, Part


Flexible baskets were clearly handy to have and they were found in a variety of contexts, from
shops, to job sites, to farmyards, to markets, to kitchens, to trails, and other places besides. It would be
easy to think that flexible baskets were everywhere. A close look at the current research, though,
suggests there were limits to its presence.
While it is easy to find these baskets in trade, domestic, and retail settings, it is much more
difficult to find them in genteel situations. Only two images show them in what seem to be genteel,
though casual moments. Both artworks depict picnics or outdoor entertaining.29
With their strong association with woodworking trades, it is no wonder that flexible baskets are
easily associated with men. However, a look at the domestic and retail images shows they were often
used by women. Of the 43 domestic and retail images in Appendix B, 16 show flexible baskets in the
hands of men and 15 images show women using them.30
Flexible basket use also cuts across national borders. This study draws on sources from France,
Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, and America. They clearly show flexible baskets in almost every
one of those countries, except in America where their presence unclear.
That is not to say that these baskets were absolutely not in America. Early America produced far
less art and writing than, for example, Great Britain. An absence of them in American sources does not
necessarily mean these baskets were absent from America.
There are a few references which suggest the possibility that flexible baskets may have been
available in colonial America. Frails are listed three times in the Pennsylvania Gazette: in 1762 and
1783 there were advertisements for “figs by the frail,” and a 1767 ad mentions “a Frail of figs and
corks.” However, in all three cases it is just as likely that they are referring to “frail” as the weight
mentioned above as they are the basket form.31 Also the presence of English-trained basket-makers,
who would have known how to make them, opens the possibility that flexible baskets could have been
III (London: J. Hatchard and Son, 1831), 254,
%3ArlG2eGZcdeoC&pg=PA254#v=onepage&q&f=false and Image B17.
29 See Images B25 & B39.
30 These numbers are based on who is holding the basket. Image B30 is not included because the basket is being handed
off from him to her. For domestic and retail baskets held by men see Images B1, B3, B14, B18, B23, B27, B29, B31,
B32, B33, B35, B36, B39, B40, B41, B42, and B43. For baskets held by women see Images B2, B4, B5, B6, B8, B9,
B10, B11, B13, B20, B21, B22, B24, B25, and B37.
31 For weight see footnote 12 above. For frails of items sold in Philadelphia see The Pennsylvania Gazette, April 22, 1762.
“To be SOLD by JAMES MARSH, A little below the Church, in Second street... and Figs by the Frail.” The
Pennsylvania Gazette, June 18, 1767. “JUST IMPORTED in the Snow Batchelor, RICHARD BULKELEY Master, from
Lisbon, and to be sold by JOSEPH WHARTON, junior, At his Store in Water street, near Walnut street... Frails of Figs
and Corks....” The Pennsylvania Gazette, October 29, 1783. “FISHER & ROBERTS, Have for SALE, at their STORE,
the South Side of Market street Wharff, Wholesale and Retail... Figs by the Frail....”


made in early America.32
Nothing specific has been found about the presence or absence of flexible baskets in America
until an 1886 English writer noted that
We are all familiar with the well-known tool-basket of the British workman (the
American workman has for the same purpose a flat box, shaped like a plate-basket, and
having a single handle in the middle), with its two hands and its capability of
accommodating itself to any kind of tools, from the hammer and gimlet to the saw and
Currently there is only one American source, an 1897 advertisement, which mentions tool
baskets. Even then it refers to them as an “English Tool Basket” and states
When a "Yankee" carpenter has a little job to do a few squares or a few miles from the
shop, he takes his tool box with tools (about 30 lbs. of tools, 15, sometimes 25 lbs. of
box) shoulders it, and starts off to his work. Now, we do not mean to quarrel with him
for doing this but would suggest that it was about time to do away with the box business
and use a Tool Basket.34
One basket researcher talking about the obstacles of researching baskets in America said
“although it is clear that baskets of almost every description have long been items in common
household usage, the history of their manufacture and distribution in America is more difficult to
document. Basketmakers seldom identified their products, and artifacts accompanied by reliable
documentation are very rare.”35 Hopefully the details presented in this study will provide researchers
more tools to overcome these challenges and identify flexible baskets in a wider range of contexts.

32 The Pennsylvania Gazette, August 22, 1765. Just arrived from Dublin, on board the ship Neptune, Nicholas. Just arrived
from Dublin, on board the ship Neptune, Nicholas Murphy, Master, now lying opposite the windmill, and to be sold by
said master, or JOHN HART, A parcel of likely healthy SERVANTS, men, women and boys; among which are the
following trades... Basket makers....”; The Pennsylvania Gazette, October 18, 1770. “FIVE POUNDS Reward. RUN
away from the subscriber, living at the Baltimore Iron works, in Maryland, about the middle of last June, an English
convict servant man, named RICHARD by trade a Basket maker , at which he is very useful....”
33 John George Wood, Man and His Handiwork (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1886), 571,
34 Charles Strelinger & Company, Wood Worker's Tools: Being a Catalogue of Tools, Supplies, Machinery, and Similar
Goods (Detriot: Raynor and Taylor, 1897), 647.
35 Gary A. O'Brien, “The 19th Century Basketmaker and His Trade” (Old Sturbridge Village, 1981),


As we have seen, flexible baskets have helped people carry the tools and other necessities of their lives
for at least five hundred years. In fact, flexible baskets are still used today. While they continue to be
made of woven grass, they are also made from jute and plastic. No matter what they are made from
they retain their familiar form, varied use, and multiple names.
Grass baskets are still made and sold, though they are often referred to as a
“rustic,” “French,” or “market” basket, either singly or together. These terms are
used today to increase the cache of these baskets to a modern market.36 The French
appellation is interesting because, as this study demonstrates, these baskets were
widely used in Britain.

The form persists as tool bag. Currently this model of jute tool
bag is being marketed for plumbers and carpenters. It is
interesting to note that so far it has only been found for sale
through British companies.37

This form is still used for domestic purposes, but it now comes in
colorful plastic and is called a “flexible bucket”.38

For at least five centuries flexible baskets have been an almost unchanging tool helping people navigate
their daily tasks. Even in the twenty-first century they continue to be an appealing, and useful form.

36 Image from; A Google image search for “French
Market Basket” will return images of modern flexible baskets.
37 Image from
38 Image from


This article is the culmination of eight years of accidental finds and focused research. It started when I
asked Phil Dunning, of Parks Canada, about the flexible basket he was holding. He said they were
common in the eighteenth century. Afterwards, as I was looking for other things, I kept finding
examples of flexible baskets, so I started collecting the references. About three years ago I thought I
had enough material for a brief blog post, but I was mistaken. That short post quickly grew to this
essay. However, the writing of it was not equally as fast.

I want to thank Kimberly Boice, Tiffany Fisk, Mathew Grubel, Deborah Peterson, and Lauren Curtis
Skorka for sharing sources, critical comments, and kind words throughout the writing of this paper.
Most importantly thanks to Jane Coughlin, my wife, for her comments and continued patience.

As always, any mistakes, misreadings, and misinterpretations are mine. But then, some of the good bits
of it are too.


APPENDIX A: Tool Basket


A1 Mid-Sixteenth Century, Spanish artist working in France
Preparations for the Crucifixion, Luis de Vargas
Philadelphia Musuem of Art - #805


A2 1642-1648, Dutch
The Holy Family at Night, workshop of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Rijksmuseum, SK-A-4119


A3 1700-1710, Italian
A Carpenter, Carlevarjis
Victoria & Albert Museum - #P.48-1938


A4 1806, British
The Little Carpenter, Bowles & Carver
Trustees of the British Museum - #1948,0214.731


A5 1808, British
detail of plate 100 from Microcosm; or, a Picturesque Delineation of the Arts,
Agriculture, Manufactures, &c. of Great Britian, William Henry Pyne


A6 1811, British
Implements Animated, PL. 1, Charles Williams
Metropolitan Museum of Art - #1978.599.1


A7 1813, British
Interior of the Carpenter's Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield, John Hill
Tate - #T03668


A8 1816, British
English Joiners, George Foster
Private Collection - Photo Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


A9 1818, British
Young Woodcutter, Joshua Cristall
Yale Center for British Art - #B1975.4.1484


A10 Nineteenth Century, British
Miniature Baluster Jug, Unknown
National Trust Collections - #NT 979605


A11 1825, British
Charring Cross, It Wants Northumberland House to be put in, George Scharf, attrib.
British Museum - #1862,0614.8


A12 1827, British
Comic Composite for the Scrap Book, George Cruikshank
British Museum - #1862,1217.292


A13 1829, British
Untitled, George Scharf
British Museum - #1862,0614.119


A14 1830, British
Thomas Rogers, Carpenter, William Jones
National Trust - #1151280


A15 1839, British
Name on the Beams, George Cruikshank
Yale Center for British Art - #B1995.29.24

A16 Before 1840, British
Study of Figures Going to Work at Six O'Clock in the Morning in London, George
British Museum - #1862,0614.360


A17 1840, British
Between 5 and 6 O'Cloing in the Morning in London (Sumer), George Scharf
British Museum - #1862,0614.1193


A18 1850-1885, British
Untitled, Benjamin Fawcett
British Museum - #1925,0715.65


A19 1897, America
Detail from Wood workers' tools: being a catalogue of tools, supplies, machinery, and
similar goods.

A20 1901, British
detail from Work: The Illustrated Weekly Journal for Mechanics, Volume 20, Number
616 January 5, 1901


A21 1901, British
Masthead for Work: The Illustrated Journal for Mechanics


A22 1925, British
Detail from Woodworkers' Tools and Machines Catalogue, No. 25, 1925


A23 1938, British
William Marples & Sons Price List


APPENDIX B: Domestic & Retail Basket


B1 1628-1632, Dutch
Beggar Warming His Hands at a Chafing Dish, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Rijksmuseum - #RP-P-OB-409


B2 1630, Dutch
Beggar and Beggaress in Conversation, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Rijksmuseum - #RP-P-OB-381


B3 1650s, Spanish
Boy with a Dog, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1650s
Hermitage Museum (Wikimedia)

B4 1688, British
Any Card matches or Savealls, Marcellus Laroon II
British Museum - #1972,U.370.3

B5 1688, British
Old Satten Old Taffety or Velvet, Marcellus Laroon II
British Museum - 1972,U.370.22


B6 1725-1728, British
The Vegetable Seller, Pieter Angillis
Yale Center for British Art - #B1981.25.20


B7 1732, British
A Harlot's Progress, William Hogarth
Lewis Walpole Library - #lwlpr22337


B8 1737, British (Spanish Artist)
Fishmonger's Stall, Balthazar Nebot
Yale Center for British Art - #B1981.25.487


B9 1737, German (British scene)
Boxkampf in London, Andreas Moller
Museumslandscheft Hessen Kassel


B10 c. 1750, British
Old satten old taffety or velvet, Louis Philippe Boitard after Marcellus Laroon II
British Museum - #1871,1209.3356

B11 Mid-18th Century, British
Hop Pickers Outside a Cottage, George Smith
Yale Center for British Art - #B1981.25.595


B12 1751, British
Captn. Thomas Coram, after Balthasar Neboot
British Museum - #1880,1113.4782


B13 1754-1765, French
Little Girl with a Large Basket, Robert Hubert
National Galllery of Art, #1984.3.45


B14 1759, British
The Onion Seller, Paul Sandby


B15 c. 1762, British
The Enrag'd Batchelor, or, The Plague of a Single State, Louis-Philippe Boitard
Lewis Walpole Library, #760.00.00.88+

B16 c. 1762, British
David Garrick and Mary Bradshaw in David Garrick's "The Farmer's Return," Johan
Joseph Zoffany
Yale Center for British Art, #B1981.25.731


B17 1770, German
“At the Harbor” Daniel Chodowiecki
Pictura Paedagogica Online


B18 1764-1794, British
Charity Begins at Home, Robert Sayer after Robert Dighton
British Museum, #1866,1114.651


B19 1775, British
The Bottle Companions, Sayer & Bennett
British Museum, #1878,1109.38

B20 1781, British
A Lady and Her Children Relieving a Cottager, William Redmore Bigg
Philadelphia Museum of Art, #1947-64-1


B21 1782, British
A Girl Shelling Peas, William Redmore Biggg
Plymouth City Council, #PLYMG.CO.2

B22 1781-1793, British
Goody High Crown, Bowles & Carver

B23 1787-1793, British
Writing Pens, Bowles & Carver


B24 Late 18th Century, British
Youth and Age, Dighton
Lewis Walpole Library, #788.1.3.1

B25 1790, British
Temptation, William Humphrey After George Morland
British Museum , #1872,0511.239

B26 1792, British
Winter, James Neagle after Conrad Martin Metz
British Museum, #1875,0410.15

B27 1793, British
Landscape With Cottage and Figures on Horseback, George Morland
Yale Center for British Art, #B1977.14.6226


B28 1799, British
Night, Charles Turner, After William Orme
British Museum, #2010,7081.7720


B29 1800, British
The Last Litter, J.L.Cartwright after George Morland
British Museum, #1860,0728.154


B30 1800, British
A Cottager Returned From Market, James Ward
British Museum, #1941,1011.42


B31 1802, British
Going to the Hay Field, Innocenzo Geremia after Juluis Caesar Ibbetson
British Museum, #1871,1111.802


B32 1811-1812, British
British May Day, William Collins
Yale Center for British Art, #B1997.20


B33 Early Nineteenth Century, British
RabbitsO! - Rabbits, Unknown
British Museum, #1948,0220.9


B34 1814, British
Cottagers, William Redmore Bigg
Royal Academy of Arts, #03/582


B35 1815, British
Matches (from Etchings of Remarkable Beggars), John Thomas Smith
British Museum, #1938,0221.3

B36 1816, British
Hearth-Stones, John Thomas Smith
Philadelphia Museum of Art, #1985-52-7271

B37 1819, British
Beadle & Barrowwoman, Thomas Rowlandson
British Museum, #1948,0214.31

B38 1820, British
Representation of the election of Members of Parliament for Westminster, George Scharf
British Museum, #1872,0608.200
Lower right corner


B39 1829, British
Well Mr. P. I Think's You've Brought Us to a Niceish Place!!!, Henry Heath
British Museum, #1985,0119.280

B40 1830, British
The Poacher's Snare, James Stewart after William Kidd
British Museum, #1848,0708.274

B41 1841-42, British
Sketches of Street Traders, George Scharf
British Museum, #1862,0614.1005
Oranges in a net

B42 Mid-Nineteenth Century, British
Three Sketches in Covent Garden, George Scharf
British Musuem, #1862,0614.37


B43 1862, French
Le Gamin (The Kid), Edouard Manet
New York Public Library, #b13472281

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