Not really – but Mark B.’s comment this morning about dampening clothes as part of the weekly laundry/ironing ritual of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations has had me reminiscing today, recalling the many uses to which the old bushel baskets – thin wooden slats with wire handles – were put during my Mormon childhood on the Wasatch Front in the 1960s. Resin grapes from that era get all the kitschy, nostalgic attention, but I’m not sure that wooden bushel baskets weren’t the basis of more Relief Society projects than those once-in-a-lifetime grapes. The grapes survived because they were hard and just sat there, and were consciously made as objets d’art; the baskets got used, heavily, and wouldn’t have survived too many years in basements and storage sheds.
Relief Society projects centering on baskets usually involved lining them with fabric so that they wouldn’t be slivery inside. Inexpensive cotton prints, or sometimes oilcloth, were the fabrics of choice. Work meeting directors sometimes came up with pattern variations, but basically you cut a circle the size of the bottom of the basket, and a strip a little wider than the basket was high, and as long as the basket’s circumference (with seam allowances for every cut side). You sewed the strip into a tube, then gathered one end of the tube to fit the fabric circle you had cut for the basket’s bottom (baskets were wider at the top than the bottom, so gathering was necessary for fit, as well as to give a pleasing “poofiness” to the lining). Then you put your lining into the basket, seams down and hidden against the basket. To finish the top, you either folded the top edge under and sewed or glued the lining to the inside edge of the basket, or you folded it over the top and finished it with a ruffle or seam binding – but if you did that, you needed to make and hem slits for the wire handles to poke through the lining.
Sometimes you made a “lid” for your basket by cutting a circle several inches larger than the top of the basket, and sewed on elastic braid to gather the edges of the circle (with or without a ruffle extending beyond the elastic). Picture a shower cap stretched over the basket and you have the general idea.
I can remember four different uses for which these baskets were made in Relief Society – do you remember any others?
1. Picnic Basket. Pockets were sewn into the lining – you just cut another strip of fabric the same length as the basket lining but only about half as high, gathered it to the bottom along with the main strip, and sewed it to the lining at intervals. The pockets were for cutlery, or bottles of pickles or jam, or drinking glasses, or whatever (paper plates, plastic cutlery, and reusable plastic food containers were not widespread in the ‘60s). There was plenty of room in the main part of the basket for your plates (on the bottom) and your wrapped sandwiches and fruit and whatnot on top. Picnic baskets were usually made with the gathered tops.
2. Laundry Basket. My mother had two that she used for this purpose, both lined with oilcloth because they were used with damp clothes. One was the basket she piled the wet clothes into at the washing machine and carried out to the backyard clotheslines; she stored her clothespin bag (another Relief Society project – it was a bag with a hanger on the top that could scoot along the clothesline as she filled the lines so that clothespins were always handy) inside the laundry basket when they weren’t being used.
The other laundry basket was used for dampening the clothes – hence my nostalgia following Mark B.’s comment. Most clothes were not permanent press in the ‘60s, and we ironed a whole heckuva lot more household items than anybody irons today. Even though my mother eventually had a steam iron, it was easier to iron wrinkles out of cotton clothes that had been dampened the night before than it was by steaming or spritzing clothes with the iron. The night before ironing day (meaning Monday evening, because Monday was always laundry day and Tuesday was always ironing day, for whatever reason), Mom would take each article that needed to be ironed and sprinkle it very lightly, scattering drops from her hand, not from a spray bottle (plastic spray bottles: another convenience not so common in the ‘60s). Then she would roll the article into a tight ball, and place it into the oilcloth-lined basket. She did that with each piece of clothing, rolling each into a separate ball so it could be removed the next day without being tangled with other clothes, then put on the lid of the basket and set it by her ironing board. The next morning, the clothes were ever-so-faintly damp, the wet spots where drops had fallen having been absorbed evenly into the fibers of the fabric. She had to finish all the ironing that day, or else take the clothes out and let them dry, because even in Utah they would have mildewed had they sat indefinitely in the dampness of the basket. (Did women in areas of higher humidity have to sprinkle their clothes, or was that limited to desert areas like Utah?)
3. Toy Baskets. We used one of my dad’s old wooden military footlockers for a toy chest, but some of my friends had Relief Society-lined bushel baskets lined up in their playrooms or bedrooms to dump their toys in when their moms yelled at them to clean up.
4. Neighborhood Exchange Basket. My neighborhood during my elementary school days was filled with young families who were doing their best to hold up the tail end of the Baby Boom. I think there must have been three to seven children in every house on my street, and every other nearby street where I ever played or walked to school or Primary. The Crescent 2nd Ward had a circulating basket – one of those familiar fabric-lined bushel baskets! – that went from house to house. Your mother would take out any kids’ clothes that fit you and your siblings, and pack into it any clothes you had outgrown, and pass it on to the next door neighbor. By the time it reached your house again, most of the clothes would have rotated through and there might be something in it again that would fit you.
So today’s plastic laundry baskets are less work, and plastic storage bins have more secure lids and stack better – but there’s something about the memory of a red-checked gingham-lined bushel basket that makes me smile. Do you remember any other ways the Relief Society turned those homely objects into useful and pretty crafts?