How Railroad Tourism Created the Craze for Traditional Native American Baskets

If you find an authentic Native American basket in an antique store, you have a real find with a peculiar history. In fact, they were made for the tourist trade! From the time railroads were able to take tourists out West, about 1890, and the Great Depression of the 1930s, these baskets were extremely popular. John Kania and Alan Blaugrund, authors of the book Antique Native American Basketry of Western North America, tell us about the Native American basket industry that flourished throughout that period.

The connection of the pieces these women made to their original purpose, as well as their extraordinary craftsmanship, are just two of the reasons why the years 1890 to 1930 are considered the golden period of basketry, when the market was strong and the goods were exceptional. Another is more bittersweet: “There was great deal of interest in native culture on the part of non-natives at that time,” Blaugrund says of the late 1800s and early 1900s, “sadly, because many people felt native cultures were dying out. They wanted to preserve a piece of it, and did so by collecting.”

Indeed, says Kania, Western culture itself was changing, becoming inexorably industrialized. It was no accident, Kania argues, that the interest in handmade, traditional-looking Native American baskets coincided with the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement, which eschewed machine-made, mass-produced furnishings in favor of artisan-crafted objects, from vases and reading lamps to dining tables and chairs. The Native American artisans of the day, says Kania, “were a part of a larger social change that was taking place. Everybody considered the Native American work to be virtuous and pure, not having anything to do with the industrial revolution the planet was going through.”

They go on the describe the history of the trade, how the baskets were made, and how to identify the materials and technique in a basket, at Collectors Weekly

(Image credit: Alan Blaugrund)

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