Thursday, October 17, 2013

Join Us at the Basket Social in Govert, South Dakota

You know about basket socials, don't you? Last week I told you about the basket social planned by the Govert, South Dakota, P.T.A. for 26 October 1928 to accompany the Halloween program at the schoolhouse. If I tell you about basket socials, maybe you'll join us.

A basket social is not just a matter of baskets. The baskets are full of food. But a basket social is not just a matter of food. A basket social was a matter of legitimatized public flirting. Say what? A basket social involved a girl and a boy, a basket or box supper for two, and an auctioneer. This was bona fide entertainment by those who participated and for those who watched. A basket social was the perfect opportunity for the hardworking unmarried men and women of Govert, South Dakota, to meet each other in a safe environment. No legal consequences attached to eating supper over a basket of food. Still, a courtship might arise from a basket social.

So how does this work? If you were an available girl of at least such-and-such an age, within your father's tolerance, you spent all afternoon worrying in the kitchen over your basket supper. In fact you may have been worrying about your basket, and how it would be received, since the basket social was announced. For this P.T.A. event in October 1928, you might have been worrying a whole month. You need not have worried. After all, if your kitchen skills are limited, you might enlist your mother and pass off her cooking as your own. Do you think this was ever done? I thought so.

Me? I would have made sandwiches for my basket. Thick slices of fresh baked bread slathered with fresh churned sweet butter and layer upon layer of thinly sliced roast beef. A bowl of potato salad. And a whole apple pie. Men like roast beef sandwiches, potato salad, and pies of every variety, don't they? What to drink ... maybe I'll add a big canning jar full of lemonade. I'll make room for a small jar of my watermelon pickles. And a jar of my raspberry jam for the winning bidder to take home. Maybe I'll tie a ribbon around a scrap of calico to cover the lid of the jam jar. That would fancy up the jam jar nicely.

I would put together an attractive basket of scrumptious food, as if my social standing depended on it. And maybe it did. No soggy sandwiches in my basket. The pie crust would be perfect, flaky, not too much salt, not too much fat. With the first of two freshly pressed tea towels, I'd line the basket. I'd arrange the second tea towel so the towel didn't quite cover the pie resting on top. With my prize pie peeking out, my basket is sure to get some good bids! Into the basket I'd tuck two freshly pressed cloth napkins. No one would ever know I made the linens from flour sacks, unless their flour came in the same patterned fabric. Maybe I'll attach a paper cutout of a pumpkin to make my basket seasonal. Horror of horrors, what if no one bids on my basket? Or what if bidding is unenthusiastic? Would I survive the humiliation?

To be sure my best beau, if I had one, bid on my basket, I would make sure he knew the color of the tea towel covering my basket. You see, the boys weren't supposed to know which basket went with which girl and that was part of the fun of it. How often do you suppose the boy knew which basket to bid on? I thought so.

Then I would take a bath, crimp my hair, and put on my best Sunday dress, freshly pressed. Do you get an idea of how much ironing was done back in the last century?

That night, the Govert community will gather at the one room schoolhouse, rush through P.T.A. business, mingle for a while and, when the time for supper arrives, the boys ... maybe we should be talking men and women here ... then the men would bid on the baskets. Every eligible man was hoping for a good meal with a pretty woman ... with individual preferences as to the relative priority to these two qualifications.

The men who didn't have to keep an eye on the color of the cloth covering the basket were the lucky ones. They could bid or not bid. A man could bid on a particular basket because he saw a woman he secretly admired add her basket to the others. Or he could bid for the fun of eating dinner with a yet unidentified woman. He could bid because he believed in the activity promoted by the proceeds of the auction. If the auctioneer swung the gavel on his last bid ... "SOLD!" ... he was a happy man.

Imagine, however, the unfortunate man who had a limited cash reserve and high expectations levied on him by a woman's ego. He was in danger of losing her favor if he did not outbid the competition for the basket covered with the identifying tea towel. Don't you think the other men knew this? Don't you think they would keep the bid running higher and higher? I thought so. Men tend to get mighty generous under these circumstances.

Likewise, my worries about no one bidding on my basket were flawed. Given the forum, a charitable activity in the schoolhouse of a small rural prairie community, no doubt the best of human nature prevailed over the worst of human nature that Friday night in October 1928. The older men, especially, knew to bid up the prices so the young men didn't get off easy, and to assure the bids by the young men were respectful. And some old bachelor would be there who, out of kindness, would treat the poorest looking basket as a feast fit for a king.

After unbridled laughter, high hopes, and much blushing by the women, each winning bidder would claim the basket and the attention of the woman who prepared the basket. Basket socials were intended to raise money for a community cause, as in October 1928 to promote school athletic activities. That goal had been met by the time the winning bidder settled down to eat. Beyond that, graciousness was considered to be a beautiful thing in a woman.

The auction assured some people had a special meal that night, but what about everyone else? This kind of hearty entertainment can create an appetite. The women not participating in the auction brought food to share, assuring the husbands and children and the men who had no basket to claim were well fed. No one goes away hungry from a community event like this. Enjoyable entertainment, pleasant socializing, and good food made for a perfect evening on the South Dakota prairie. And, for the man still seeking supper with the prairie woman of his dreams, there was always the next time.

Here we go a courtin'! Maybe yes. Maybe no. As my husband, Russ, was quick to note, a basket social is an intriguing variation on what we would refer to today as a blind date, a blind date within a protective social structure.

I probably shouldn't get carried away planning a basket for the basket social, because I'm a married woman. I suppose that is something more than a mere technicality. In any case, I think I'll take the apple pie for the community dinner. I still have my reputation in the kitchen to protect, but maybe I won't be quite so particular about the crust ...

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate


  1. Kate, if we had to bid for the best story I heard this week... Well, let's say Russ would have to shell out ;-) As a foreigner I, of course, had never heard of this phenomenon. You had me mouthwatering in the first part when you described your basket :-) Some communities here in The Netherlands would do well adopting this old method!

  2. Sweetheart,

    Thanks for another creative and entertaining blog posting...and an educational one as well for those of us who've never heard of basket socials. What a wonderful and enjoyable way for a community to gather together to share friendship, good food, and common values and interests in life...and maybe spark a romance or two along with it.

    The idea of a "blind date" seems to fit best in the situations where the young man did not know the young lady who'd prepared the basket he was bidding on. He only knew it was a basket he was drawn to...perhaps because it was so attractively or festively decorated or because he'd caught a whiff of the appealing food aromas sneaking out of the basket (oh, the yummy fragrance of freshly baked apple pie!). Anyway, if he successfully wins the bidding, he is presented the basket...and first sees the young lady that goes along with that basket. Voila, the "blind" part of the supper date takes place. By the way, the food part of the supper is also "blind" because the young man doesn't know what he's getting to eat until he successfully wins the bidding and gets to open his basket. So, here you have a "blind date" accompanied by a "blind meal"...what suspenseful and exciting fun!!

    Thanks, dear, for continuing to follow through with what I see as the underlying intent and purpose of your blog site...introduce us to and inform us about the people, events, and history of Govert, SD, and teach us in a vividly illustrative and entertaining way about the rural life, times, and culture of prairie homesteaders and residents in the early 1900s. Your week-to-week blog entries are consistently enjoyable and well-written...thanks, dear!

  3. What a joy! My Canadian cousin, Gloria, told me about her experience with box socials. This is what she wrote: "We used to do that for our church youth group. I can still remember trying to decorate my shoe box to look the best. That is what we used as nobody could afford nice baskets, etc. Sometimes we used to give “hints” to the boy we wanted to buy our box lunch but you hoped nobody else found out about that. Plus, it didn’t always work. You always knew the boys that had money and the ones that only had a few cents or dollars. Now that I look back on it that was likely much harder on them than the stress of decorating the most beautiful box." Thank you, Gloria!!