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The Wooden Bushel Basket as a Mormon Religious Object

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 23, 2011

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?



18 Comments »

  1. My friends and I used one of those exact baskets to make a trap to catch a skunk that kept roaming around our backyard at night. It never worked – I think skunks must be afraid of flannel. And mom wasn’t too happy about it.

    That would be use #5.

    Comment by -MMM- — November 23, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

  2. Uh, yeah, I don’t suppose there was a Relief Society work meeting devoted to flannel-lined skunk traps …

    :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 23, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  3. Cool. For all the times I’ve read about the historical laundry routines, I’ve never read a description of the dampening process.

    I only remember plastic baskets from my childhood, and somehow I associate the basket in the picture with agriculture.

    Comment by Researcher — November 23, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

  4. Dampening! Pop bottle with a tin sprinkle head attached to it! I think ours was a Dr. Pepper? A root beer bottle? Definitely clear, not the green 7-UP or Squirt kind…

    Comment by Mina — November 23, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

  5. Researcher, somebody once suggested to me that on those days when there just isn’t anything to write in a journal, I should describe one of the most ordinary, unremarkable tasks of life — washing dishes, grocery shopping, bedmaking, getting dressed — in as great detail as possible. What is utterly trivial and routine now will eventually change, and it’s the homely details that are lost to history because everybody takes them so for granted.

    I’ll bet you haven’t thought of that sprinkling bottle for years, Mina!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 23, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

  6. Haven’t thought of these kinds of baskets forever. The ones I remember most we actually used in picking fruit at the Stake orchard when I was a kid, or for picking produce from my grandmother’s garden, so many years ago. When they got heavy, the simple wire handles really hurt your hands. We always had a couple hanging around in the garage, with the bottom slats half broken out. I think I do remember seeing one of these lined with some kind of cloth, but I don’t remember what use we put it to.

    Blast from the past!

    Comment by kevinf — November 23, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

  7. I wonder if the reason they were so plentifully available for Relief Society projects was because of the prevalence of fruit orchards and the persistence of home canning in Mormon areas? Your mention of the pressure of a heavy basket held by those wire handles instantly provoked another memory, kevinf.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 23, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

  8. Wow, thanks for the memories! I had forgotten all about dampening clothes before ironing, and about the wooden bushel baskets.

    It really is the details that are lost to history — even in my own lifetime.

    Comment by lindberg — November 23, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

  9. I was raised in Iowa and it is humid there and we also sprinkled the clothes. If Mom didn’t get it ironed that next day, she would stick in the refrigerator for up to a couple of days.

    Comment by Rosemary — November 23, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

  10. My rental properties are all old houses. I have a museum full of things from the olden days that we find in walls and attics. One is a bottle with holes punched in the lid. My kids tried for a long time to figure that one out before I told them it was for dampening clothes. My most recent find was bushel baskets *with lids* in the attic. I’m going to donate them to a historical museum.

    Comment by Carol — November 23, 2011 @ 5:47 pm

  11. The dearth of Utah orchards hasn’t eliminated the baskets completely. The Chesapeake Bay crab industry still uses wooden slat baskets, with slat lids, to transport the crabs to market.

    Comment by Senile Old Fart — November 23, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

  12. This brings back a lot of memories. I grew up dampening and ironing clothes, then continued on after I was married. Because both of my grandparents had orchards, there were a lot of baskets, crates, and lugs around. I inherited my aunt’s “relic room.” She used crates as shelves and lugs hung on the wall where she put pictures and nick-knacks. Eventually, my nieces and other relatives talked me out of most of these “useful” and “cool” items. I put fabric lining on small baskets and kept some of my young son’s toys in them.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — November 23, 2011 @ 10:40 pm

  13. My mother also had one of those pop bottle things.
    Like this.

    Comment by Left Field — November 24, 2011 @ 10:15 am

  14. Awesome. I had never heard of that gadget until Mina mentioned it. Am copying the picture here for reference after the eBay auction goes away:

    .

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 24, 2011 @ 10:31 am

  15. Why, we took some of those baskets, cut the bottoms out, and nailed them up at the ends of the gym–invented a new game to keep the boys in shape and active in the wintertime. Called it “basket-ball.” Don’t know if any of you young whippersnappers remember it anymore.

    Comment by James Naismith — November 24, 2011 @ 10:54 am

  16. Back to dampening clothes–I remember my mother sprinkling water on the clothes as they lay on the kitchen counter, and then she’d fold them lengthwise, sprinkle the “backs” and then rolled them up into a cylinder–a few inches in diameter by six to eight inches in length. Then she’d put them into a large, heavy plastic bag until the next morning when she’d do the ironing.

    No pop-bottle sprinkler for her, though. She used a vegetable brush–dedicated to that purpose–dipped it into a bowl and sprinkled the clothes with that.

    And, just for fun, I asked my daughter and son-in-law what came to mind when they heard “dampening clothes.” Basically, nothing. Kids these days!

    Comment by Mark B. — November 24, 2011 @ 11:04 am

  17. Mother just used her hand to sprinkle the clothes. I did too, learning from her.

    Comment by Maurine — November 25, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

  18. never heard of any of these baskets, but love the idea of the ‘Neighbourhood Exchange Basket’- wish they had been around when my kids were small!

    Comment by Anne (UK) — November 26, 2011 @ 8:20 am

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