Building a Collection

Native Californian Basketry at the University of Pennsylvania Museum

By: Judith Berman

Originally Published in 1998

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One afternoon in April of 1905, a Pennsylvania Dutch mill owner named Henry K. Deisher stopped by the University Museum for an appointment with the curator of the American Section. Being a col­lector of Native American basketry (Fig. l), Deisher hoped the curator would show him such “Indian bas­kets” as were not on exhibit in the public galleries.

As it happened, the American Section curator was at that moment in the market for a basketry collection. He was sufficiently intrigued by the description of Deisher’s that he traveled to view it several weeks later to see if it might be suitable for purchase by the Museum. This trip initiated negotiations over the col­lection that dragged on for 13 years.

What the Museum at long last purchased can today be recognized as one of the premier collections of Native Californian basketry. It is notable because of its quality, good preservation, and especially its unparalleled documentation. The last includes a detailed cata­logue of the baskets, and photographs and names of a number of the weavers—a rarity at any time, but partic­ularly for Deisher’s era (see also McLendon, this issue). The Deisher collection is not just an assemblage of beautiful art objects; it is also an important primary source of ethnographic and ethnohistoric data, particu­larly for the Pomoan area (see McLendon 1981).

George B. Gordon

The curator whom Deisher had come to see that day, George Byron Gordon, is a key figure in the history of the Museum (King and Little 1986). One of the first to receive a Ph.D. in archaeology from Harvard, Gordon had been hired by the Museum in 1903 in the wake of the departure of the previous American Section curator, Stewart Culin. In 1910 Gordon became Museum Director, a position he held until his death 17 years later (Fig. 2).

Though he never distinguished himself as a scholar, Gordon’s role in building the Museum’s ethno­graphic collections is unsurpassed. Gordon was interest­ed not just in increasing the overall number of objects; he sought to achieve comprehensive coverage of all areas of the world, as well as of all types of material cul­ture within any given society.

Like many of his day, Gordon believed Native American societies to be rapidly changing if not vanish­ing altogether, and so valued “old” objects that had been authentically produced for traditional purposes. He was also very interested, however, in the aesthetic aspects of ethnographic objects, and always looked for the most beautiful and well-made examples of an object type. Gordon’s ideal was to situate the Museum in the middle ground between Science and Art. “Between the two,” he wrote, “will be the museum of Human History, the spe­cial business of which will be to fill the gap separating [them]” (Gordon 1912:61-62).

These notions shaped his collecting strategy for over 25 years. Museum funds were never adequate for his purposes, however, and Gordon racked up huge deficits in the Museum’s budget, to the extent of precip­itating financial crises for the institution. He trolled constantly for donations from the wealthy Philadelphia elite. For a period he used his own money to acquire specimens, which he then loaned to the Museum until funds became available for outright purchase. He mad­dened dealers and private collectors by holding onto goods lent to him on approval for months, even years, while he searched for better and less costly pieces. He often tried to beat the price down, and then kept the seller waiting for long and exasperating months for the reduced payment—often because he was searching for a wealthy donor willing to buy it for the Museum. His negotiations with Deisher were more protracted than most, but otherwise typical in many respects.

When Gordon arrived in Philadelphia in the fall of 1903, the Museum’s Native American basketry collections were meager. The Museum had no Pomo baskets at all.

Gordon soon began shopping for baskets, but serious purchases of California baskets, especially Promo baskets, required substantial sums of money (see McLendon, this issue). In 1904, Gordon spent over a month at the St. Louis Exposition purchasing collec­tions from all over the world—except North America. He found the prices of nearly all the exhibited “Indian articles,” including the baskets, too high. His first signif­icant purchases of California basketry were made from a young female entrepreneur named Grace Nicholson, who had recently establised a shop in Pasadena from which she sold Indian baskets and other art objects.

Grace Nicholson

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Grace Nicholson moved to Los Angeles in 1901, at the age of 23, and almost immediately entered the business of buy­ing and selling Indian baskets (Apostol 1976:22). Once she opened a shop in Pasadena, Nicholson had access to the rich visitors who wintered there, and she ultimately became a major dealer in Asian as well as Native American art. She seems to have held a special appeal to the very wealthy women who came to her shop, as a number became her regular clients.

Nicholson obtained some of her goods from other dealers and private collectors, but she also mount­ed summer field trips to California Indian communities, where she bought baskets directly from weavers. She maintained personal relationships with the weavers and their relatives, corresponding with them and in some cases hosting them in her house. Nicholson was also a self-trained ethnographer who collaborated with the Eastern Pomo artist William Benson (McLendon 1990). She took photographs and at times kept detailed notes about the baskets and their makers, as well as about other ethnographic objects she purchased (Fig. 3). It is sometimes possible to associate baskets purchased from Nicholson with Nicholson’s own documentation, and these baskets constitute, outside of the Deisher collec­tion, the largest pool of California baskets from this era for which the weavers’ names are known.

Gordon bought a collection of Nicholson’s in March 1905, after some heated bargaining between them. This collection consisted of over 30 objects of which nearly all were baskets, and nearly all of those from California. A third were Pomo baskets from Mendocino County. Some were indeed “old”—that is, produced for traditional use rather than for the com­mercial market—and thus “scarce” by that date. At least one, however, Nicholson had purchased new on her 1903 field trip.

This acquisition began to fill some of the gaps in the Museum’s holdings. Gordon still did not have a large, representative collection of California basketry, however, and Nicholson’s prices, though competitive in the larger market, seemed too steep to allow for any large purchases. Henry Deisher’s arrival at the Museum, scarcely three weeks after Gordon had concluded his transaction with Nicholson, was for Gordon’s purposes well-timed. It allowed him to begin shopping. Over the next year Gordon compared price, selection, and quan­tity of several collections, including Deisher’s and two or three others.

F.S. Plimptone

In February of 1906, while Gordon was rumi­nating over Deisher’s baskets, he learned of a collection to be sold in order to settle the estate of the late owner. The collection had belonged to a Fred S. Plimpton (Figs. 4, 5), and was well-known to collectors and con­noisseurs, having been mentioned in Otis Mason’s 1904 monograph on Native American basketry, as well as sup­plying a good number of the illustrations in George Wharton James’ 1906 publication.

Gordon went to see Plimpton’s baskets in June of 1906, but was not yet ready to decide between the various collections he was considering. Only when the March 1907 deadline set by the estate administrator was upon him did Gordon finally act. He chose the Plimpton collection. He paid $1250 for 225 baskets, the remaining 35 or so going to the heirs as “keepsakes” (Fig. 6). Gordon thereby acquired a prime basket collec­tion at an astounding cost of $5.55 per basket, an absolute steal for the time (compare with the price of the Hudson’ collection, Smith-Ferri, this issue). This was almost half what Deisher was asking.

Little is known about the history of Plimpton’s collection. What is most striking about the baskets, how­ever, is the exquisite aesthetic sense behind their selec­tion. There are many beautiful baskets in UPM collections, but Plimpton’s consistently stand out for their perfection of technique, cape, design, and color sense.

The Heye Collection —  Here and Gone Again

The Plimpton and Nicholson purchases satisfield Gordon’s California basketry needs for a long time (Fig. 7). After 1907, his collection practices changed sig­nificantly. The reason was an arrangement he secured with New York businessman George G. Heye. Heye agreed to deposit the bulk of his vast collection of Native American artifacts at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in exchange for its conservation, curation, and exhibition. Though no written contract was drawn up, Gordon expected that the association would be permanent (King and Little 1986:31-32).

As Gordon’s goal was comprehensive coverage without excessive duplication of any given object type, he now carefully planned North American acquisitions to fill the weak areas in Heye’s materials. During this period, Gordon seems to have considered the Museum’s holdings in California basketry, taken together with Heye’s, to be sufficient.

In 1915, however, Heye’s mother died, leaving him the money to build his own museum. The next year, Heye officially founded the Museum of the American Indian (now the National Museum of the American Indian) and informed the UPM he was removing his entire collection.

The Museum never made up for the loss, although the flurry of North American accessions made after this date reflect Gordon’s scramble to cover the gaping holes left in his careful collection strategy (King and Little 1986:44-45). By 1916, Gordon was once again interested in acquiring baskets. Over the next three years, he was fortunate to secure three large col­lections: one was a gift, one a bequest (see box on Anne Meirs and Patty Jewett), and the third, Deisher’s, a pur­chase. Together they totaled nearly 1000 baskets, over two-thirds of which had come from California.

Deisher and the Reverend Meredith

The Museum’s loss of the Heye material allowed Deisher, who had been the disbelieving loser in the competition with the Plimpton collection, to com­mand Gordon’s attention once more. Henry Deisher’s origins lay worlds apart from the privileged lives enjoyed by the wealthy collectors of the sort who fre­quented Grace Nicholson’s shop. Born on March 12, 1867, he grew up in rural Pennsylvania with ten siblings, speaking Pennsylvania Dutch as his first language. Deisher began collecting as a boy, picking up stone points and blades on his family’s farm, and by 1878 had won a prize for his collection at a state fair. Deisher later commented that he had been one of the “pioneer” col­lectors in Pennsylvania.

In 1890, at age 23, Deisher borrowed money to buy a knitting mill in the small community of Kutztown, about 60 miles north of Philadelphia. Initially the venture was profitable, and broadened both his resources and his collecting scope. At some point he branched out from stone tools into Native American beadwork, blankets, and bas­kets. By 1909, he had acquired more than 22,000 Native American implements. He operated a room of his house as a “home museum.” In 1914, Deisher told Gordon that because he had no more room for his collections, he was selling them off. In reality he was experiencing financial dif­ficulties. By May of 1915, Deisher had lost his mill and was in the hands of his creditors.

Deisher reopened negotiations with Gordon over the baskets in 1914, but they haggled for four more years. Gordon still balked at the price and size of the col­lection, and wanted to take his pick—mostly the rare, large, “old” cooking baskets—while Deisher hoped to keep the collection together. Then Heye removed his col­lection from Philadelphia, leaving Gordon in need of

quantity as well as quality. Finally, in May of 1918, Deish­er and Gordon agreed on a price of $3500 for the entire collection of around 440 bas­kets. This was an average price of $8.14 per basket, substantial­ly less than the $13.72 Deisher had originally demanded. Deisher was forced to accept these terms because of the con­straints imposed on him by his creditors.

Deisher’s response to the beauty of his baskets was a personal, emotional one. “I love them next to my family,” he wrote Gordon (UPM, 7/18/1906). To choose among them would be as difficult as for “a father were he to give up one of his children.” One of the reasons he endured the endless negotiations with Gordon was that, as he repeatedly and somewhat wistfully stated in their correspondence, he hoped to have them in an institution close to home, so that he could go see them occasionally.

Yet Deisher articulated a scientific rationale for his approach to collecting, and his frequent comments to Gordon about the uniqueness of the collection were not just the boasts of a doting father. Deisher, the manu­facturer of ladies’ knitted underwear, had seized upon the importance of detailed documentation years ahead of professional scholars. As he wrote Gordon: Although I did not collect them personally . . . yet I have all but a few direct from the field collector, with considerable data and a number of valuable photos.

The collection is the work of 9 years for himself and the choice of his collections for 3 yrs more, with almost continual contact with the Indians . . . I have avoided chunk [sic: junk] shops and second hand shops . . . they have them from everywhere—and nowhere. The identity of the exact locality and maker is all lost, very impor­tant you know.

. . . I am confident my collection is well and authentically made by a man who was right among the Indians and knew what he was doing . . . Most collections are made up , . . more for adornment of a room or den—not with a scientific view a thing which I always had in view. . . . (PM, 7/18/1906)

The “field collector” who had provided most of Deisher’s baskets was a Methodist minister named Henry C. Meredith (see McLendon, this issue). Mere­dith had begun collecting soon after his arrival in California, and had acquired some of the baskets he sold Deisher as early as 1894 (Fig. 10). Information in Deisher cata­logue and letters indicates he probably began buying baskets from Meredith in 1903 and had acquired around three-quarters of his collection by 1905. His purchases ended when Meredith entered the hospital in 1907 shortly before his death.

Deisher had main­tained through the course of the negotiations with Gordon that his asking price was barely sufficient to cover his costs. Gordon claimed that Meredith had overcharged Deisher in the first place, but Meredith’s prices do not seem particularly high in comparison with what other dealers were asking, a fact of which Gordon was perfectly well aware. Deisher wrote Gordon, “[Meredith] assures me (as a Minister) that he is giving me goods cheaper because I have nearly all his work of 12 years collecting and that he prefers building up a grand collection rather than scatter abroad. My heart is so in this work that I feel the same way” (UPM, 3/19/1906).

Note the implication that Deisher had been Meredith’s primary customer from the beginning. Deisher also said that Meredith always gave him the right of first refusal on any basket. In fact, Deisher must have been a windfall for Meredith, who had no shop and lived in a small community 16 miles from the nearest railroad. If Deisher’s price list is accurate, over the course of about four years he had paid Meredith at least $5000 for baskets and several thousand more for archae­ological collections.

One of the ways in which Meredith marketed his baskets under these less-than-ideal circumstances was to send photographs that depicted the weavers with their baskets, together with “descriptions,” written on the photos or scraps of paper, that often related a brief story about the weaver or the history of the basket. Deisher copied these descriptions into his catalogue to preserve them as scientific data (see McLendon, Figs. lb, 9, 10b, this issue):

Known to be a three generation basket. Made by the mother of old Minnie now living at Carters, Cal. and given to her son from whom it was obtained. Minnie’s father was a Cherokee Chief [i.e., at Cherokee, Cal.], ruling at Cherokee, Bald Rock and Knights Ferry. He married a Mono woman and at the time of the Indian war of 1853 fled to the Monos among whom he died. (UPM, Deisher Catalogue, no. 132)

Baskets with such “descriptions” appeared more frequently in Deisher’s purchases as time passed, sug­gesting that if this was a marketing ploy by Meredith it was a successful one, and increasingly resorted to. Perhaps as a consequence, by far the largest number of baskets which have a weaver’s name or portrait photo­graph associated originate in the Pomo communities near the town of Lakeport, where Meredith was living in the final years of his association with Deisher (see McLendon, this issue).

Although Deisher was especially proud of his “fine old and rare” baskets, only a few in his collection are genuinely old, documented to the 1830s and 1840s. There are a number of baskets that are not so much antique as well-used in the service of food collection, preparation, and consumption. Many other baskets of the same types, however, seem to have been for sale, as they have seen little if any use. Most of Deisher’s Pomo baskets are of the decorated gift-basket type that was made in great numbers for the market (Fig. 11).

In all, there are 84 out of nearly 160 Promo bas­kets in the Deisher collection for which Deisher pre­served the name and/or a photograph of the weaver. These baskets are the work of nearly 40 weavers from eight Pomo communities. The collection contains 36 other baskets, nearly all from California, for which the name of the weaver is recorded. This includes baskets from Mono, Sierra Miwok, Plains Miwok, Patwin, and Wailakki weavers, among others. Even when Deisher’s catalogue does not give the name of the weaver, it often gives the particular Indian community in which the weaver was living. There is no other collection of California basketry with so many documented baskets.

Even more striking is the number of baskets by weavers who are related to each other (see McLendon, this issue). Nearly all of these baskets, not surprisingly, are from the Pomo communities near Meredith’s final home on Upper Lake. This fact demonstrates one important difference between the documented baskets from Meredith and from Nicholson: Nicholson’s col­lecting field trips yielded a cross-section of the baskets being produced at a given time. Meredith’s purchases reflect a depth of acquaintance with the community and thus reveal stylistic similarities within families, as well as change between generations.

It is hard to know what value Gordon placed on the documentation Deisher had received from Meredith. It certainly did not motivate Gordon to obtain the collection regardless of cost. He made no effort to secure the documentation from Deisher—it was Deisher who insisted on preserving the documenta­tion as well as the integrity of the collection. Nor did Gordon include the information in the Museum’s own catalogue. On the other hand, Gordon did not throw out the documentation, either. He may have thought that filing Deisher’s catalogue and photographs away in his collection records was sufficient to preserve it for future research—as in fact proved true.

Today it is clear that a museum ethnographic collection does not represent the material culture of a group in any simple way, as Gordon hoped it could. It is as much the result of the compounded philosophies, tastes, and circumstances of all the dealers, collectors, and curators through whose hands it passed as it is the achievement of its original creators.

Deisher’s collection is unique in many other respects, but not in this. This collection is not just a body of representative work by Native American basket weavers. It is also the outcome of Meredith’s personal relations with the weavers, of what he was able to pur­chase in a competitive market, and of the way in which he advertised the baskets to his chief customer, Deisher. It is the result of Deishers selection of those baskets, his determination to preserve his collection and its docu­mentation, Gordon’s role in bringing it to the Museum, and, finally, the way in which the collection and its doc­umentation have been stored, catalogued, and curated within the Museum—which is still changing.

Anne Meirs, Patty Jewett, and Nicholson Once Again

In 1919 Anne Weightman Meirs, a wealthy member of the Philadelphia elite, official­ly transferred her entire Indian collection to the Museum as a gift in memory of her recently deceased husband. There is little information about how Meirs acquired her rather large collec­tion of Native American art. It includes around 220 items, over two-thirds of which are from California. Over a quarter of the total, around 60, are Pomo baskets, most of which are finely woven specimens likely made for the art market (McLendon 1993:50).

Around the same time, the Museum also received a bequest from Patty Stuart Jewett (Fig. 8). Jewett may have acquired her interest in Indians through her father, George Stuart, a Philadelphia businessman and social reformer involved, among other causes, with abolition and Indian rights. She acquired the wealth that allowed her to collect large numbers of California baskets through her husband, William Kennon Jewett. At some point the Jewetts joined the win­tertime pilgrimage of the wealthy to Pasadena, and Patty Jewett became one of Grace Nicholson’s customers.

Over the years Patty Jewett had acquired Navajo blankets, Plains beadwork, but most of all baskets. Nearly all of her collection came out of Nicholson’s Pasadena shop. Nicholson wrote Gordon that she had “worked to have the [Jewett] collection as fine as any in the country” (UPM, 4/10/1918). The Jewett collection totalled 238 specimens, valued in 1918 at $12,000. Of more than 150 baskets, nearly two-thirds are Cali­fornian. Fifty of the total are Pomo baskets, a high percentage of which are the expensive, solidly feathered kind. There are also a number of small, finely woven miniatures. Patty Jewett’s is an art-basket collection par excellence.

Though she had close family connections to Penn, Patty Jewett seems to have made no for­mal bequest, and Nicholson was instrumental in convincing Mr. Jewett that the Museum was indeed the proper recipient of his wife’s collection. Nicholson also personally catalogued the collec­tion before it was shipped to Philadelphia, filling in her own inventory numbers. As a consequence, it is possible to associate a significant number of the Jewett baskets with documentation in Nicholson’s papers (McLendon, pers. comm.).

Of all the baskets that came to the Museum through Nicholson, the name of the weaver can be determined for at least 11. Nine of these are Pomo (Fig. 9). The documentation also allows fairly precise dating of some of the baskets: it shows, for example, that a number of Jewett baskets were purchased new during Nicholson’s 1911 field trip. Jewett probably began buying her baskets around 1906.



Cite This Article

Berman, Judith. "Building a Collection." Expedition Magazine 40, no. 1 (March, 1998): -. Accessed June 18, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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