When Nicole Penney started doing research on paper mill lunch baskets, she had no idea how many cultural nuances they could have.
Penney is co-ordinator for a special collections project being conducted by the Intangible Cultural Heritage Development office of the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The collection project is interested in Mi’kmaq root baskets and trout baskets, but it’s the mill basket that has captivated Penney.
“There is a lot of sentimental value tied to these baskets,” said Penney, who is looking for photos of baskets and the stories behind each creation.
“Luckily, because of that, people still own them and I have been able to get photos of them.”
The mill basket — traditionally a wooden, two-handled, woven basket — has been more than just a practical way for a hungry mill worker to bring a large meal or two to work. They often became heirlooms of sorts as retiring fathers would pass theirs on to a son or relative who had landed work at the mill.
It was an item the whole family got involved with, said Penney, whether it was the mother packing the lunch into the meal or the child who sometimes delivered the meal to a father who was at work.
“The men would often compare lunches and the women were very aware of this,” said Penney.
“So sometimes, there was a bit of anxiety making sure you had a good lunch.”
Each basket often had the owner’s name scribbled or engraved on it, or was decorated with union stickers, badges, doodles or even photos of the worker’s kids.
“Every basket shows the personality of who owned it,” said Penney.
On the job, the basket could sometimes become the focus of practical jokes played on the younger workers by the more experienced employees.
So far, Penney has collected roughly 100 photographs of about 20 baskets and the stories behind them, including some about the people who made them.
The exact origin of the mill basket is still a matter for debate, she said. One theory has it that the first baskets were imported from the United States, but local mill workers figured out how to make them on their own and improved the American design.
Another theory was that the former mill in Grand Falls-Windsor had two Nova Scotian women make around 100 of the first baskets to be used in the province.
A third possibility is that the tradition began at the paper mill in Corner Brook before being picked up on by workers in the central Newfoundland mill.
Penney is interested in learning more stories about mill baskets, and anyone who has photos or stories can contact her by email at email@example.com or by calling her at 739-1892, ext. 3.
She would also like to hear from anyone who may have used a similar basket to transport lunch to a workplace other than a mill. So far, she has not heard of the practice carrying over into other professions.
“It seems strange to me that it would be completely reserved for the paper mill,” she said. “I can see there being other places in those communities where people would use them.”
The photos and descriptions of the mill baskets Penney collects will eventually be uploaded to an online digital archive that will be accessible via the website at www.collections.mun.ca.
The Western Star