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The History of Charleston Sweetgrass

September 14th, 2017

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Have you noticed Charleston’s famous sweetgrass baskets? If you drive along U.S. Highway 17 north of Mt. Pleasant you may see roadside stands selling not vegetables but these beautiful sweetgrass baskets. Or as you wander around downtown Charleston you’ll come across vendors at the Four Corners of Law intersection of Broad and Meeting streets. Sweetgrass baskets are unique to the Lowcountry and the history of Charleston sweetgrass baskets goes back to 300 years or more.

See also History of the Charleston Harbor

What Makes Sweetgrass Baskets Special?

There are two features of these baskets that set them apart. First, they are created of coiled grass rather than the woven construction featured in most baskets. Second, they are crafted of sweetgrass, a type of wild grass that grows only along the Atlantic Coast in the southeast United States that is known for its pleasant scent and pale-green color. These two features make true sweetgrass baskets unique.

History of Charleston Sweetgrass

When slaves were first brought to South Carolina in the 17th century they brought with them the skills necessary to make this type of basket. Initially, men used bulrushes to create wide flat baskets called fanners that were used for winnowing rice. Often this work fell to those who were too old to work in the hot sun, although it was sometimes also assigned as an off-season task for any available workers. While some smaller baskets were also made for use in plantation households, many others were sold to bring in a little extra income for the plantation owners.

After the Civil War basket-making continued among the blacks in the Lowcountry, particularly in the area around Mt. Pleasant. However, during this time the basket makers shifted from the men to the women, who could create baskets at home. At the same time, the basket materials shifted from the heavier, coarser bulrushes to the smaller sweetgrass that grew abundantly among the dunes and in the marshes. These artisans used thin strips of palmetto fronds and bulrushes, along with pine needles, to intricately weave the coils together so tightly that a basket made by an expert will hold water. These additional materials also have the added bonus of being useful for creating the decorative patterns seen in sweetgrass baskets.

See also Plan Your Charleston Bucket List

Modern Markets

By the early 20th century, many artisans were selling their baskets to entrepreneurs who marketed them through mail-order catalogs or in gift shops. Thus, sweetgrass baskets became desirable for the home. Other basket-makers set up stands to sell their creations alongside highways or in busy city markets. Today, in addition to the places mentioned above, the Charleston City Market is a good place to find authentic sweetgrass baskets.

Threats to the Charleston Sweetgrass Basket Industry

Unfortunately, modern developments of homes and golf courses along the beaches have destroyed much of the habitat of sweetgrass along the edges of marshes or behind oceanfront sand dunes. These same developments also limit access to the areas where sweetgrass still grows naturally. Although there has been some experimentation with planting sweetgrass from Florida, this grass is slightly different from the native Lowcountry plant.

If you hope to purchase a sweetgrass basket, be sure to check it carefully. Imported “seagrass baskets” look very much like the real thing. Be on the lookout for clear plastic bands used to hold the coils together; you won’t see them in an authentic sweetgrass basket.

Want to learn more fascinating facts about Charleston and the amazing Charleston sweetgrass baskets? Find a full schedule of ghost tours, pirate tours, and more!