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Baskets by
"Stuttering Charlie"

For as long as I can remember, my mother had three old, hand-woven baskets, made from white oak splints.  Here's a picture of these baskets.  The tall one on the left was used as a dirty clothes hamper -- toss your dirty clothes in it and when it's full, wash the clothes.  She used the short basket on the right as a sewing basket -- it held scraps of cloth, thread, scissors, and the like.  The basket in the rear, with the handle, served many purposes -- picnic basket, carry casseroles to church suppers -- whenever she needed a basket with which to "tote" something.

Three baskets by "Stuttering Charlie"


Here are close-up photos of the three baskets.

                                  

Laundry hamper                                                                           Sewing hamper

 

Hand basket

My mother was born in 1924 in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, near the village of Norwood, LA.  In the early 1930's her father moved the family to Centreville, Wilkinson County, Mississippi, where he opened a grocery store with a National Recovery Administration loan -- in the midst of the Great Depression. 

My mother told me several times that these baskets were made by an old African-American man who lived in/near Centreville whom she knew as "Stuttering Charlie."  She told me that "Charlie" stuttered whenever he spoke with other people, but, when he talked with her with no one else present, he did not stutter.

I inherited these baskets after her death (March 2007) and I set out to find more information about "Stuttering Charlie."  I wrote a letter to the editor of the Woodville Republican newspaper; they published my letter and I heard from two people who knew Charlie.  Here is what I have learned so far:

  • His name was Charlie Thompson, and, he did stutter badly.
  • He made baskets which he sold around Woodville and Centreville and throughout Wilkinson County.
  • He made his own splints from white oak trees.
  • He had a nephew named Richard who learned basket-making from Charlie.
  • One summer either Charlie or Richard or both were featured artisans at the Smithsonian National Folk Life Festival on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  This may have been the summer of 1974 because, according to this website, one of the featured themes of the 1974 Folklife Festival was Mississippi.
     

My mother told me that Charlie made the two round baskets for her for 35 cents each.

The basket with the handle has another story.  My mother's family -- her father, mother, older sister, and younger brother lived near Norwood, LA, where her father -- my grandfather -- was a buyer for a regional grocery and dry goods company, Bridges and West.  When the Depression hit, he lost his job.  The family survived for a while farming, part-time work, and sharing with family and neighbors.

When Franklin Roosevelt instituted the National Recovery Administration to make loans for people to start businesses, my grandfather took a NRA loan, moved the family a few miles to Centreville, MS, and opened a grocery story.  Here is a photo of my grandfather in his store -- this appears to have been an advertising photo:

If you look closely at the photo, in the center, you see three baskets behind my grandfather -- two on the floor and one on top of these two. 

According to my mother, shortly after Granddad opened his grocery store he read an article in the Independent Grocer magazine suggesting that grocers make hand baskets available to their customers so the customers could select their own merchandise.  At this time, the practice in grocery stores was for the customer to give their grocery list to the grocer or a clerk who would then fill the order while the customer waited.  The magazine article suggested that, if customers walked through the store selecting their own merchandise, they may make impulse purchases, thus increasing their purchases.  Granddad asked Charlie to make three baskets and those three are the baskets in the photo.  The basket with the handle that I inherited from my mother is one of these three baskets made for Granddad's store.


I continue to search for information about Charlie Thompson and his baskets.  If you know any of this story, please contact me via email.

 

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