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Key basket, Richmond, Virginia, circa 1850-1860


Key basket
Richmond, Virginia, circa 1850-1860
Stained leather, sewn and embossed, 6 x 6 x 5 inches

This key basket is one of a small number of closely related examples characterized by embossed heart, star, and diamond designs on the sides and heart-shaped appliqués at the juncture of the handles.  A nearly identical example is illustrated in Stacy C. Hollander, Ed., American Radiance, The Ralph Esmerian gift to The American Folk Art Museum (New York, 2001), p. 178, no. 146, and p. 463, which notes s that: “A number of similarly tooled leather baskets with handles survive with histories of ownership and manufacture in the Richmond area. This basket is constructed of finely tanned cowhide sewn in tapering oval shape with a flat sheet-form bottom and an attached stationary central handle; it is lined and wrap-finished on its edges with a thin, finder grade of red-stained leather. This red leather is also used in an inset heart design placed where the handle attaches to the sides. This technique of stitching and construction evident across the known group of these baskets relate closely to the traditional skills of the saddle or harness maker or shoe cobbler. Several examples are signed by their makers.   This basket bears the initials “G F” impressed in block letters on the underside, as do at least three other examples. The 1859-1860 Richmond city directories list a maker of boots and hoes by the name of George Freitag (or Friday) and could indicate the possible maker. Other examples are impressed with the name of the Richmond saddle and harness maker S. S. Cottrell and Company (act. 1858-1887). However, at least two other examples closely related  in decoration and form to this key basket have survived with associated provenances suggesting they were made by inmates of the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond and possibly by slave craftsmen incarcerated there during the late 1850s. One example, virtually identical in form and decoration to this basket, survives with an unsigned manuscript note relating such a history. It reads, “The convicts were not furnished with work but were allowed to employ their time for their own benefit, making whatever they could that would sell to visitors… Miss Patterson and I visited the penitentiary, as was a common thing among the residents of Richmond, and brought away some of the work. While there I ordered the basket for her. These key baskets are highly ornamented with decorative stitching and utilize intricately impressed geometric patterns, stars, hearts. Based upon surviving information, their original purpose seems, however, to have been largely utilitarian, as receptacles for the numerous household keys essential to running an orderly and effective home. Traditionally thought to have been given as wedding presents to aid the new bride in managing the marriage household, this example bears the embossed initials “J. R. McK”, thought to be those of its original owner. While the identities of their makers may never be firmly established, the leather key basket represents an important, specific regional tradition of folk crafts and a distinctive decorative form that developed along locally preferred patterns of gift presentation and household customs.”