In the early 1900s, Hopi women began making baskets for the growing tourist market. The Fred Harvey Company was building hotels along the railroad lines and running “Harvey Car” tours into “Indian Country.”
Tourists could get off the train in Winslow, stay at La Posada, catch the Harvey Car tour to the Hopi Mesas and return to Holbrook a few days later to continue their journey to California. There were many tours available including trips to the Grand Canyon.
Harvey had died in 1901, and his sons, Ford and Byron, had expanded the business. The hotels along the railroad had gift shops full of Southwest Indian Arts and Crafts and the Fred Harvey Company often arranged for Hopi, Navajo or Apache artists to be in the stores, dressed in traditional clothing, demonstrating their crafts.
The Hopi and Tewa people living on the mesas north of Holbrook, Arizona were known for their pottery. They also produced many baskets, but most of them were for utilitarian use or for use in the traditional tribal ceremonies and activities. Most of the baskets were made on Second Mesa, the central of three mesas that make up the Hopi reservation.
Hopi Coil baskets were primarily done as plaques. I used to think that these were made to sell to tourists until I got a call from Robert Gallegos in Albuquerque who had found a collection of these plaques that were for sale. He wanted to know if I wanted to partner with him and sell them in the gallery. Bob is one of the nicest and most knowledgeable people in the Indian art business and a big part of the success of the Antique Tribal Arts Dealers Association.
These baskets were pieces that he normally wouldn’t sell, so it made sense to partner with Toh-Atin. I was honored to be asked. In doing some research on the baskets, I found that I had been completely wrong about the Hopi plaques. They are probably the most important basket that the Hopi make. They are used to express gratitude. If someone does something nice for you, perhaps hoe your cornfield in years past, or bring you a load of groceries today, the recipient would give a basket as a thank you. If a person was to help putting together a wedding outfit for your daughter, they would receive several baskets. If an elder, or a Katsina Dancer saw a young child doing something kind, they would be given a small coil basket.
When you receive one of these baskets, it is yours and you are free to do with it what you want. You can sell it, keep it, trade it or re-gift it. Some people believe that these plaques are one of the reasons that the Hopi are so kind. I don’t know if that’s true, but I never met a Hopi that wasn’t courteous and friendly.
Of course, as the tourists began to come to the villages or when the Hopi women sold their wares at a Harvey store, there was a demand for more and different baskets. The Hopi had always made larger storage baskets and it didn’t take much for them to modify their designs to appeal to the new audience. The coil basket is made with long bundles of grass as a foundation, wrapped by strips of Yucca gathered from the center of the plant. The materials for these baskets, including plants for dyes, are gathered at different times of the year so the process of making a basket is essentially a big circle, encompassing most of the year.
The materials are all picked, dried and dyed at different times. You could say it is a full-time job!
It’s not often that you find one of the larger baskets that was made for the tourist trade. We were lucky to receive this large open basket that has handles on it. Of course, the Hopi would never make something like this for their use as the handles would not hold up, but some person traveling across the country by train fell in love with it. It dates to the 1930-1940 time period when the owner tells us his grandfather made a trip west.
It has raincloud motifs along the top edge, deer all around and the Hopi mesas around the bottom. There are a few small breaks in the basket weave and some wear on the bottom of the basket that is not visible, but this is a very attractive piece. It was obviously made by a woman with some experience!
According to Sarah and William Turnbaugh, authors of the book Indian Baskets, you can tell the age of the woman who wove a coil basket by the way it is finished. If the coil at the end is not finished and just cut off, leaving the grass to extend, it was woven by an unmarried woman of childbearing age. If the coil was partially tied off, it was woven by a married woman of childbearing age and if it was completely finished, it was woven by an older woman. That is not necessarily true today as the market prefers the finished pieces, but it undoubtably was in the 1930s.