Kenyon College

Fanner Basket (from Ballsdam Plantation, St. James Santee)


Fanner Basket (from Ballsdam Plantation, St. James Santee). 1840-1860.
Bullrush and Palmetto.
52.7 cm (d) x 7.6 cm (h).
Courtesy of The Charleston Museum.


This “fanner” basket dates from approximately 1840-1860 and was used in rice fields by slaves. Its worn condition is a testament to its frequent use. Fanners were introduced to plantation life in the late 17th century by West Africans transported to the Sea Islands through the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves throughout South Carolina and Georga reproduced them using local materials. Southeastern American growing conditions and were not unlike those in West Africa, and the warm climate yielded sweetgrass, palmetto and bulrush ideal for basket weaving. Fanner baskets are shallow and dish-like, and are used for cleaning and chaffing harvested rice. By 1800, grain cleaning mills, known as winnowing houses, largely replaced fanner baskets, and those which remained acquired a range of other uses. Slaves used the baskets in their quarters to clean rice earned through work or grown on their own plots, and as vehicles in which to carry corn, peas, and other small produce. They were also used by working field mothers as portable baby cribs. Following the Civil War, men (and some women) continued to weave fanner baskets for rice chaffing on farms that were still in business post-Reconstruction. Fanners are generally made of bulrush and tied together with splints of white oak or thin strips from the stem of saw palmetto. On this fanner, the torn bulrush coils are tied together with brown yarn, and the palmetto stitches have become unraveled in some sections. To appeal to tourists and collectors, 20th century basket makers began working with sweetgrass, which is brighter in color than bulrush. More recently, however, sweetgrass has become difficult to find due to commercial development and changes in the coastal areas where it grows, prompting contemporary basket makers to embrace abundant bulrush one again. 

Dulce Montoya ‘14