What can an early 20th century Californian basket weaver teach today’s makers about standing out in a crowded marketplace? A lot, actually. Artisan Elizabeth Conrad Hickox cannily used her own skills and aesthetics to take advantage of a decor trend and build her business and reputation. In his book, Basket Weavers for the California Curio Trade: Elizabeth and Louise Hickox, author Marvin Cahodas tells the story of Hickox and her daughter, a basket weaving team who saw every challenge they faced as an opportunity to build their brand.
Hickox, the daughter of a Native American woman, lived in Northern California with her husband, a moderately successful gold miner in the era of the California Curio Trade. Between 1880 and 1920, a national craze for collecting and decorating with Native American basketry took hold of the United States, and tourists flocked to the Southwest, traveling by rail, collecting baskets from communities along the trains’ path. Hickox had the spare time needed to perfect her basket weaving skills, innovating to set her work apart.
Working with her daughter, Louise, Hickox focused on creating smaller baskets, targeting discerning female customers looking to decorate parlors, shelves and mantles. She specialized in a form called the “gift basket,” an elegant, tapered shape topped with a lid that featured a tall, delicate knob (see header image above). Through perfecting this form, her name became synonymous with it, and it is still recognizable today.
Hickox dispensed with the multiple color palettes and experimental patterns that preoccupied so many weavers. A limited, two color palette using black maidenhair fern and porcupine quills dyed yellow defined the latter half of her career. She also selected superior materials to work with. She chose the finest shoots and rods, and refined her weaving technique, often achieving 800 stitches per square inch. Her finished work was so fine, it set her far above others in the field. She became known for restraint and a refined elegance that patrons admired and coveted.
By being aware of the market, making smart design choices and pushing for technical excellence, Hickox capitalized on a trend to create lasting works of art.
Header image information: Karuk Basket with Lid. Elizabeth Kickox. Karuk, California, ca. 1910. Collected by Patty S. Jewett. Side view. Penn Museum image 150207, object NA8311. Photo by Penn Museum.