The quest for the vintage “card basket”

Meredith Peach

7 September 2018

On a foggy autumn day, I drive to Canberra to interview textile artists Beth and Trevor Reid, whose impressive basketry collection I saw a few years earlier at a basket makers’ Gathering. I am hoping that some baskets in their collection will help me to solve a mystery: where did the “card basket” come from? These are baskets with greeting cards stitched or crocheted together, often around a wooden base. They are uncommonly seen today, and those that have survived often go unnoticed by people who don’t have a particular interest.

I own one of these baskets, an octagonal beauty made by my favourite great-aunt and presented to me when I was around eight years old. The basket didn’t make a huge impression on me at the time, with its ragtag collection of 3-D Australiana postcards showing birds and kangaroos in outback scenes, combined with cut-out images from Disney comics of the day, in a girly colour scheme of pink, mauve and pale blue. It did humble duty as my sewing basket for many years. As I grew older, though, I never encountered another basket quite like it, and I came to appreciate it more and more. Auntie Ollie had put a lot of consideration into choosing images she thought would please me, and her skilful stitching was second to none.

I had been writing a book about Australian basketry and hit a wall in my research on this particular kind of basket. There seemed to be no trace of them in the historical literature. I wondered whether my postcard basket was a style unique to Australia, or common in the wider world. I was curious about how and where the style originated. I had no idea of the rabbit holes my research was about to send me down.

First stop, the Internet. First problem: I didn’t know what to call the basket. “Greeting card basket”, “postcard basket”, “vintage card basket”, “crocheted card basket”, “trinket box” and “hanky box” all produced results, but did not clarify what, if anything, was the official name. Eventually, I settled on “card basket” as a working title, although in historical Australian newspapers (from the National Library’s Trove database) most “card baskets” just seemed to be ordinary baskets intended to hold calling cards. Some websites called them “Victorian-era” baskets, but in the absence of any evidence for this, I was sceptical. Many of the baskets had plastic cord or plastic sheets in their construction, placing them firmly in the mid 20th Century.

This is the sum of my knowledge on the day I drive to Canberra. I arrive early and sit in a park to gather my thoughts, revise my questions, and make sure my phone’s voice recorder is working. I have never officially “interviewed” someone before, and I feel a little nervous. I have brought my own treasured basket, and a box of patisserie treats, to help ease us into conversation. When Beth welcomes me at her front door and ushers me into their warm, intimate home, I know I needn’t have worried about the discussion flowing naturally; we are out of the gates before I can turn the voice-recorder on.

In the sitting room, a medley of baskets from around the world hang from hooks. Trevor produces tea, and some of the card baskets in question; two large octagonal forms with handles, two lidded boxes and one letter-holder. Beth remembers winning one in a church raffle as a child in the 1950s, but found their other card baskets in op shops, so their origins are unknown. I put my own basket on the table too, and we turn them around looking for clues. We note the sturdy metal frames and masonite or plywood bases and speculate about whether card baskets were available as a kit, including the frame, plastic cord, base and/or panels, and whether the technique was disseminated through the Country Women’s Association (CWA) or church groups.

It is exciting to see Beth and Trevor’s collection again, but I drive away with more questions than answers. With renewed determination I return to Trove, trying increasingly unlikely combinations of search terms and trawling through articles with the merest hint of relevance, such as accounts of CWA meetings and agricultural show craft competitions. Finally I locate a how-to article from an Australian Women’s Weekly in 1961, with instructions for making a waterproof basket with “clear celluloid”. The rectangular basket with panels stitched together looks like a relative of my card basket. There are a few oblique references from the late 1800s – early 1900s to handkerchief boxes made from wallpaper, cardboard and/or fabric. Then, Bingo! In the “Housewives’ Exchange” column, from the Sunday Mail (Brisbane) in 1929, Mrs W.J. Andrews, of Cannon Hill, Brisbane, provides instructions for making a “picture box” from used postcards and Christmas cards, blanket-stitched together. Although the box is not illustrated, I can tell from the description that it resembles my card basket. This is the earliest definite reference I have found so far, and I am delighted, but also frustrated that so much research has produced so little information.

I decide to turn to less conventional research avenues. I am usually quite superstitious about telling people about my writing. The more I talk about it, the less writing seems to get done. Consequently, I have told very few people that I am working on a book, but now the time has come to stick my hand up and confess. I begin emailing strangers all over the world. CWA branches, Women’s Institutes, museums, antique experts, craft groups, archivists, greeting card enthusiasts. I attach a photo of my great aunt’s basket and a blurb about my quest for knowledge. Normally a shy lurker on social media, I also publish my request on Facebook and Instagram.

Over the next few weeks, I am swept up in a whirlwind of responses. Many Australians and New Zealanders remember card baskets from the 1950s to 1970s, and some have seen earlier examples from between the World Wars. Somebody’s granny made them in the 1920s. One confirms that kits were obtained through the CWA. Other makers belonged to church groups, Brownies and other children’s groups, or learned the technique at school. A couple mentions the baskets being made in nursing homes or hospitals, for therapeutic purposes. Many post photos of their own card baskets online. Various CWA members email me to share their memories of card baskets.

Postcards, greeting cards and other materials were cleverly upcycled in these baskets. Often the cards were covered in clear plastic (variously described as “celluloid”, “cellophane” or “acetate”), sometimes sourced from cleaned x-ray film, or the plastic covers from mens’ shirt boxes. Someone had made hats in a similar style, from plastic laundry soap bottles, in the early 1970s. Another had made a basket with panels cut from ice-cream punnets. My own great aunt’s basket lining seems to be made from an old vinyl shower curtain.

Soon it emerges that card baskets were also made in the USA. People send me copies of instructional booklets they found online, in the attic or in op shops, some by USA publishers. A friend from the US Virgin Islands has a lovely box from her granny’s estate, made with postcards of St Thomas. The historians at Hallmark Cards has seen examples of card baskets in antique shops, although there are none in the Hallmark archives.

My inquiries in Europe and the UK initially draw blanks from sources who I thought might know about card baskets, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Museum of English Rural Life, and the Textile Research Centre (Leiden, Netherlands). Various basketry colleagues from the UK note similarities to lampshade styles, American First People’s stitched birch bark baskets, and the “beer can hat” phenomenon of the 1970s, which took the stitched-panel theme to new levels of kitsch, but none of them have seen my card baskets in the flesh. The editor of the Greeting Card Society (UK) newsletter, PGBuzz, publishes an article about my quest, but no answers result from this.

Some tantalising Facebook posts that I cannot follow up suggest card baskets were made elsewhere. One, apparently from Finland, mentions making them in grammar school. Another has seen a similar lampshade in the Czech republic. An internet search turns up some vintage-looking instructions in German, but I cannot trace their origin. I get quite excited about a card basket post on the Canadian Women’s Institute Facebook page, but it turns out this person was actually from South Australia, had moved to Canada in the 1980s and has never seen card baskets there.

I contact many museums in Australia, but only a couple tell me they have card baskets in their collections, and these are of the small historic house variety, rather than larger institutions such as the Powerhouse, the National Museum, or the Ararat Regional Gallery (which has an extensive basketry collection). I begin to suspect that card baskets might have been considered too folksy or “nanna craft”, not prestigious enough to be included in many museum collections.

A few intense weeks into my quest, many emails have gone unanswered, my research is resulting in more misses than hits, and I almost lose heart. I listen on ABC radio to an interview with a woman researching the history of the flannelette shirt (I’m a fan of the flanny, myself), and I think, I’m not the only one obsessing about obscure subjects. Then one day, an elderly English friend mentions that her aunt in Kent made baskets from postcards during the 1940s. A few days later, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes posts my query on their Facebook page, which draws several responses mentioning card baskets made in church groups, hospitals, etc. Finally, I have confirmation that card baskets were made in the UK, in similar contexts to Australia, and I resume the search with new vigour.

What I had thought were spurious claims of Victorian heritage for card baskets eventually turn out to be correct. In the NSW State Library, I find references in Victorian-era publications to baskets and boxes made of cardboard panels stitched together. A Montreal magazine from 1876 suggests saving postcards to use for such purposes. In The Lady’s Newspaper (England) articles from 1861 and 1860 show patterns for a hexagonal card basket of the style I’m seeking, and an octagonal “card receiver” (a card basket in both senses). The earliest reference I find dates from 1852, in the Lady’s Newspaper, describing a six-sided “pretty basket” with beads stitched onto flower patterns in perforated cardboard panels. The card basket’s family tree may go back earlier still, though. An antique dealer’s post on the Ephemera Society’s website from 2013 suggests that similar “card boxes” date back to ladies’ needlework practices in eighteenth century Europe, although I have not found any further references for this.

So, after an intense and convoluted research adventure of several months, on a subject that will probably occupy no more than a brief paragraph in my book, I have only partly answered my questions. It seems that card baskets were made mainly by women in nineteenth-twentieth century “Western” societies, particularly during the 1950s-70s when instructions and plastic sheets became widely available, but their roots might spread back a century or so earlier, perhaps picking up influences from other cultures along the way. The jigsaw puzzle picture looks quite filled in towards its western and southern edges, but has many blank spaces elsewhere. I have the nagging feeling that the key pieces lie somewhere just out of reach. Perhaps even in the hands of some reader of this article.

Recently I have been experimenting with panels of plastic packaging, illustrated in marker pen to disguise the branding, and stitched together into basket forms. During my Canberra visit, Trevor Reid shows me some card-basket-inspired pieces he made years ago while doing his textiles degree; beautiful, delicate forms made from joined panels of plastic and paper, fringed in deliberately uneven blanket stitch. We discuss the joys of “making do” with inexpensive materials such as discarded overhead projector sheets. These days Beth and Trevor Reid are acclaimed makers of quilts, another art form involving panels stitched together. Some weeks into my quest for the origins of the card basket, Nalda Searles sends me photos of her poignant “cocky quilt” with photos of roadkill cockatoos stitched together. Interesting that my research keeps turning up quilts and quilters.

Card baskets may never be acclaimed as high art, or receive an official name, and perhaps their origins will always remain a mystery, but it warms me to think they still live on in new incarnations and in the hearts and minds of contemporary basket makers.

Acknowledgements

Other than Beth and Trevor Reid, and Nalda Searles, I have not named sources in this article for economy of space, but I am extremely grateful for the help I received from (in no particular order) Polly Pollock, Samantha Bradbeer, Tim Johnson, Ann Beatty, Lois Walpole, Gigi Beretta, Anthony Camm, the Australian National Museum, the Powerhouse Museum, Annette Shiell, Deborah Tout-Smith, June Andrews, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, the Country Women’s Association, and the many friends, social media enthusiasts, basket makers, colleagues, museum volunteers, and complete strangers who shared stories of their own card baskets. I am also grateful to Penny Bell for her feedback which helped to improve an earlier version of this manuscript.

Further Reading

The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), Issue 281, 15 May, 1852, p 294, “To correspondents”
The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), Issue 682, 21 January, 1860; p 48, “The Worktable. Conducted by Mademoiselle Roche. Card-receiver”
The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), Issue 734, 19 January, 1861, p 40, “The Worktable. Conducted by Mademoiselle Roche. Drawing-room card-basket”
New Dominion Monthly (Montreal, Canada), 1 Dec 1876, p 532, “A wheelbarrow needle-book and pin-cushion”
Australian Town and Country Journal, 22 November 1879, p 28, “Trifles For A Bazaar”
Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 3 October 1888, p 5, “Mechanical Work”
Weekly Times (Melbourne), 24 December 1892, p 10, “Society and Fashion”
Queenslander, 18 January 1908, p 4, “Handkerchief-box with crochet-work top”
Australasian, 2 April 1910, p 57, “A Handkerchief Box”
The Land,12 Dec 1924, p 23, Letter from “Agapanthus” in “Letters from Young Folk”
Advocate (Burnie) 16 Dec 1926, p 9, “The Women’s Forum”
Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 22 December 1929, p 19, “Housewives’ Exchange. This Week’s Award”
The Workbasket (USA), February 1951, Vol 16 no. 5
Australian Women’s Weekly, Wednesday 29 November 1961, p 27 “Beach accessories to make”
Arbee (1968) “Colourful Creations With Celluloid Picture Projects”. Arbee Handcrafts, Art of Craft Instruction series, Melbourne.
Hazel Pearson (1974) Greeting Card Creations. Hazel Pearson Handicrafts, Rosemead, California, USA
The Australian Women’s Weekly 3 January, 1979 p 87, “Beer can hat to crochet”
Jennifer Isaacs (1987) The Gentle Arts: 200 Years of Australian Women’s Domestic and Decorative Arts. Lansdowne Publishing, NSW. [This book does not actually mention card baskets, but provides wonderful background on the context in which they were made]
Ephemera Society post on the history of “card boxes” by VJH (2013)
Michelle Board (2018) A Greeting Card Basket Case. PGBuzz, 21 June 2018

Author

Meredith (Meri) Peach (B.A., BSc., PhD) is an Australian artist and educator specialising in fibre sculpture and basket making. A previous career in biological sciences also informs her artistic practice. Meri lives in the NSW Southern Highlands and is currently researching and writing about the history of basketry in Australia. Meri’s website: sharkchic.com.au

 

 

 

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Comments

  • Kristina says:

    Thank you for sharing both your beautiful card basket and your findings. Your aunty made a beautiful basket. I found you in images because I am looking for a simple guide to make some baskets myself. Like you my internet searching has been not so forthcoming as I also don’t quiet know the name of what I’m looking for.
    I love fabric and recycling so hoping I can marry the two with a basket or two.
    Fun fun fun

  • Angela Hartigan says:

    I was very interested to come across your article.
    I bought an old “hankie box ” about 4 years ago and my friend bought a rectangular basket in a similar style. This set me on a path of making these blanket stitch edged bags and boxes on a vintage theme which I now sell local at a local market and on line . As a result of this activity so many people stop to tell me their memories of this craft , and of family memories from the 1920’s to 1970’s who used to make these items. Apparently people used to use old X-ray films, cleaned up, for the plastic covering. I even had one lady send me a box her grandmother had made asking me to repair it so they have special memories for many people.
    It is a beautiful old craft which I like to think of as Australian as I never came across it in the UK. If you’d like to see my designs they are online at VintageBusyBee on Etsy.com

  • Joanna Nagubadi says:

    Hello, I found one of these at the thrift store, it had polish christmas cards, look up christmas card basket and you get a lot of hits because they were popular for many years to make with christmas cards as many people gave and received cards and kept them.

    all the best,

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