Eating in style – vintage picnic baskets

vintage picnic basket

The Picnic Basket by John George Brown

I’m a big fan of food, but I don’t know that I could ever match the unbridled enthusiasm of Yogi Bear when he first sets his eyes on a pic-a-nic basket. In honor of one of my favorite childhood cartoon characters, this week’s article focuses on vintage picnic baskets. Prepare your snacks, find your best blankets, and get ready for adventure!

The concept of eating outdoors is nothing new, but the term “picnic” debuted in 17th century France (“pique-nique”). Simply put its definition was people gathering together, sharing tasty snacks outdoors. The key was to savor and take your time as you nibbled in between chats. Additionally it was often a potluck, with each attendee bringing a few tasty creations for the group. Dining al fresco, surrounded by friends is idyllic and it’s no wonder picnics became the inspiration for many paintings now gracing museum walls. But even though the vision was perfect, in execution it became a challenge. How do you safely transport all the necessary utensils and accessories required for an afternoon in the park? Cue the humble picnic basket – the cornerstone of any successful outdoor soirée.

It’s not entirely clear how woven baskets became the popular solution, but it makes sense. Baskets are sturdy, cost-effective, and the materials fit in with the natural ambiance. In fact that is part of their appeal as a collectible: a vintage picnic basket can still be used today or it can be repurposed for decoration. If you’re thinking of starting a collection, my research has revealed three major brand names that you should familiarize yourself with and some are still in business today! First up is the Burlington Basket Company. This Iowa-based company was known for their Hawkeye picnic baskets. They first opened their doors in 1888 and offered an array of products like hampers and sewing baskets. Their popularity peaked during the 1950s-1960s when they were the manufacturer of choice for department stores nationwide (including Mr. Sam Walton, founder of Walmart). I can understand what all the fuss was about when I look at this salesman sampler. Check out the delicate weaving and braiding! The combination of materials and the aesthetic give it a cool, ceremonial affect.

What’s also special about this brand is that the story of the Burlington Basket Company is a tale of perseverance. They had been in business for about four decades when their entire factory burned to the ground. A once prosperous and established firm was reduced to mere ashes. Tragedy never strikes at a good time, but I imagine the pain of this devastation effected the company on a few different levels. It was on the heels of a successful season, when they were making their mark as innovators. You may think: what do you mean by an “innovative picnic basket?” Allow me to explain. In the early 1910s people were concentrating in urban areas for the first time en masse and connecting with nature took up a valuable resource: time. A lucky few had one of the new-fangled Model T cars, but most people were resigned to long train or bus rides to get to prime picnic pastures. When the Hawkeye refrigerated picnic basket debuted, it was a breath of fresh (albeit chilled) air. The Burlington Basket Company was, to put it in modern terms, disrupting the industry. But in an instant it was all gone, engulfed in flames.

Collectors’ tip: with most collectibles the value is found in the markings or labels. Baskets do not fit into that category. The value for baskets is determined by two things: age & quality. Older baskets will be sturdier, heavier and will incorporate unique design details. Authenticating vintage or antique baskets is very much a “hands-on” affair.

Many people would have cut their losses right then and there, but that wasn’t an option for Burlington. They relocated and rebuilt (during the Great Depression mind you), only to face constant flooding in their new location, which rendered an entire section of the factory inhabitable. Talk about discouraging, but still they continued. The impact of World War II shook their community. Still they continued. Then in the 1950s they landed their first contract with Sam Walton. Things were rosy for a few more decades until the entire manufacturing landscape changed with increased overseas investments. When they closed their doors in 2011 the company left behind a legacy known in every corner of America. For collectors, it’s important to note that their mid-century retail offerings – while easier to find due to sheer volume – might be trickier to identify as stores often relabeled the baskets. The most cherished of treasures date from the turn-of-the century and may include labels like the example seen here.

Something must have been in the air during the late 1800s because our remaining brands also got their start during this time. Peterboro started first in 1854 and the company is still thriving to this day. You can see that their modern offerings pay tribute to classic designs. Much like the good folks in Burlington, this company has weathered its fair share of plot twists. I love the very beginning of their story – one of the co-founders, Amzi Childs, journeyed to Peterborough, New Hampshire on the promise of a new job. But surprisingly that gig wasn’t related to basket weaving. In fact, it was about as far from it as you can imagine. He came to manufacture lead pipes! I’m not sure what led him to basket weaving as a hobby, but I can speak from personal experience that weaving can be therapeutic. Perhaps he was initially in need of a calming activity, but soon he found a partner who was equally interested in baskets (Asa Henry) and the two embarked on this journey. Just as they were growing their reputation, their factory was destroyed by flames. Like our friends in Burlington they relocated, but every few years the new location would burn. The company found new partners, rebranded, relocated and yet the threat of fire was never far behind. All these decades – generations – later and the Peterboro company stands firm. The weavers and workers who worked there in the early days went on to become local legends. What an incredible testament to the value of true craftsmanship and artistry!

Image from the Auckland Museum

Last, but certainly not least, we have the Redmon Company. Unlike Amzi Childs, W.C. Redmon was weaving from an early age. His first big break was at a factory in Peru, Indiana. Sadly, soon into his tenure the factory was demolished in a blaze and for a young W.C. it must have felt like his chances of being a distinguished businessman had gone up in smoke. But if this article has taught us anything, it’s that basket weavers aren’t easily discouraged. W.C. was determined that risks would yield rewards. He hustled during the day as a barber, using the income from this job to build his own basket company. Sort of like an entrepreneurial superhero, W.C. was cutting hair by day and weaving baskets by night. Soon he was able to bring on his first employee (who would later become his bride – cue the romantic movie music now!). Like the early days of any start-up, the going was slow but steady. W.C. was focused on laying the foundation for his empire and I can imagine his joy watching the hard work pay off. However, during a Fourth of July celebration in 1906 his factory was destroyed by fire. Here he was, two decades into his business and his dream was in tatters. Undaunted W.C. rebuilt and saw the company through world wars and economic depressions. The company is nearing its 140th birthday at the time of this article. A celebration of this size is going to require a massive birthday cake and an epic pic-a-nic basket to transport it. I imagine the great Yogi Bear would be finding ways to crash this party!

So dear reader as you get ready to gather your nearest and dearest for an outdoor eat-a-thon remember the history behind picnic baskets. Consider the artistry of each creation, handmade by someone who was in the midst of some incredible challenges. The natural environment is always an inspiring backdrop for a picnic, but I would wager the container you bring along is equally awesome! I wish you luck in finding the perfect basket for your next trip to the great outdoors – may the thrift be with you…

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