At Christmas 1908 an article appeared in the Australian Weekly Times urging women to properly identify their dress baskets when travelling by rail. It gave an example of two women who failed to mark their baskets. They were travelling on the same train to Melbourne; one bound for the seaside at Queenscliff and the other a mother, heading to Brunswick. The two baskets accidentally ‘changed ownership’. I have a vision of a baby wrapped in a fashionable summer gown and a young woman arriving looking with horror at a basket full of baby clothes.
I had never heard of dress baskets until recently. A wonderful photo was posted on a FB site showing a line of ladies leaving a guesthouse called Braeside at Healesville, in country Victoria. Every one of them is carrying a wicker dress basket. You can tell from the hats that the image dates the Edwardian era, circa 1910. Being made of wicker the baskets were lightweight, and thus ideal for travel. They appear to have spanned the era between heavy trunks and the modern suitcase.
I did love this story from 1912. It was the fact that dress baskets were made from wicker which led to the discovery of a ‘stowaway’ on the Melbourne to Sydney express train;
While the Sydney express train was being checked after leaving Melbourne the other day a conductor passing along the corridor requested a lady to remove a dress basket from the gangway. The lady would not remove it, and became indignant. On his return from the end of the carriage the conductor found the basket still there, and upon it a hat of ample size [well, all 1912 hats were enormous!] He picked up the basket, int4ending to place it in a compartment. As he lifted it, a pin fell out of the hat. He picked it up and pushed it through the hat into the dress basket. Immediately there arose from the basket howls of pain. The owner of the basket added her screams, but offered no explanation of the noise…..The conductor thereupon unstrapped the basket. Out stepped a Collie pup, delightedly wagging his tail, the pleasure of liberty conquering the pain of the stab with the hatpin. He was taken to the part of the train reserved for his species. (Huon Times, 3 April 1912)
The only advertisement I could find for dress baskets was a salvage sale in Adelaide a decade later. Note that it mentions reinforced, leather corners, which many were fitted with along with leather straps for carrying.
Like most things dress boxes were multi-functional, and easily adapted to other uses. Below is a diagram of how to convert one to a cradle. A reader had sent it to the hints page of The Argus (Melb,) in 1910. It even had a frame for a fly net.
The editor had disapproved of one element;
In reproducing the illustrations, I have removed a pair of rockers which were shown attached to the frame, because the best authorities everywhere object to the practice of rocking babies; and I have proved by my own experience how very unnecessary it is. (The Argus, Mar. 23 1910) Oh dear, I don’t like the sound of that theory. 😰
I was surprised to see that dress baskets were still around during WWII. They were pressed into service as cots at a busy hospital. It doesn’t look though they were adapted in any way though.
Being made of wicker means it’s unlikely any of the baskets survive today. Having slipped into history, their role in cradling infants seems a perfect place to farewell them.
UPDATE – Fortunately I was wrong about none having survived. After reading this story Jan Mac posted a picture of her grandmother Ruby’s dress basket, still in excellent condition and still being used for storage. Many thanks Jan.
HOW A DRESS BASKET HELPED SOLVE THE MURDER OF MARY GRAHAM.