"Going to Hell in a handbasket"

Per subject phrase:

  1. What does it mean? What instances would it be used?

  2. What are its origins? An early cite?

  3. The SDMB search engine is screwed and I just get gobble-dee-gook searching the web.

Chief - what I’ve found so far: http://members.aol.com/MorelandC/HaveOrigins.htm

Are the other places we can go in a handbasket?

Sorry, thought the link would take you to the appropriate page. It’s under “rhymes and slang” on the index at the left.


“Phoooone hooome…!”

That’s an interesing site, asey, thanks for finding it. However, I’d be cautious about it.

In terms of “hunky dory”, for instance, they cite the oft-repeated idea that it arose from the name of a street in Japan; however, the phrase was used in pre-Civil War songs in the U.S., and so the Japan-origin seems extremely unlikely.

For “hell in a handbasket,” Straight Dope Science Advisory Board have been trying to get to the bottom of that one for a while, with not much success. The reference on the site that asey gives just says it’s alliterative. Well, yeah… so?

We’d be glad if anyone has any substantiated explanations of the origin of the phrase.

Thanks CK,
I hesitated to come back and say that some of the explainations on that page were bullshit. I’ll continue to dig.

Yeah, you guys are right - I was just happy to find something on it. I’ll keep looking.

No time to lose, no time to lose, no time Toulouse.

Only if we pull ourselves up with our own handbaskets.


Here are a couple of things:

Also http://www.jmas.co.jp/FAQs/alt-usage-english-faq had this to say:

“James L. Rader of Merriam-Webster Editorial Dept. writes: ‘The Dictionary of American Regional English […] records ‘to go to heaven in a handbasket’ much earlier than […] ‘hell,’ which is not attested before the 1950s. The earliest cite in our files is from 1949 […]. ‘In a handbasket’ seems to imply ease and and speed […]. Perhaps part of the success of these phrases must simply be ascribed to the force of alliteration. DARE has a much earlier citation for another alliterative collocation with ‘handbasket’
(1714), from Samuel Sewall’s diary: ‘A committee brought in something about Piscataqua. Govr said he would give his head in a Handbasket as soon as he would pass it.’ I suspect that ‘to go to hell in a handbasket’ has been around much longer than our records would seem to indicate.’”


Here’s a WAG - from the above post, the phrase “his head in a Handbasket” made me think of an execution. Decapitation was pretty popular at one time and I suppose there was a basket to catch the unfortunate victim’s head. Perhaps going to heaven/hell in a handbasket was a euphemism for dying on the chopping block?

Here comes a candle to light you to bed.
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
(Had to throw in a nursery rhyme for Ray; I know how much he likes them.)

aseymayo: Wouldn’t that be a “headbasket”?

What the hell IS a handbasket anyway?

Yer pal,

I used to write three “word association” brainteasers. One of them was “Troy, capitol, handbasket.”

Helena… I get it.

No wonder the violence in the schools, with aseymayo writing nursery rhymes like that. But without a Jack in it somewhere it’ll never sell. The following are already taken:

The beanstock-climbing Jack
The Jack who broke his crown
The house-building Jack

Try a car-Jack-er.

A handbasket is what you carry around when you expect to meet a lot of those people who say, “Hey, I could use a hand here.” You just reach in your basket and throw them one. (You can probably stock up on hands in one of the Moslem countries that has a fair supply of unskilled thieves.)

Ray (and eye for an eye, a basket for a hand)

Are those the hands that have to be washed before cooking?

The way I understand it, a handbasket was used by young maidens on the prowl for husbands in the Shaker society.

Made from thin strips of wood, usually pine, and often covered with two hinged lids, these baskets were highly decorated (by Shaker standards) by the young women who’d carry it. Because there was no utilitarian purpose for these psuedo-handbags, often they went identified by antiques dealers as egg baskets, small picnic baskets and the like.

As a tool to identify a young woman ready for courting, and the ornamentation allowed by a strict society, there are sexual undertones ascribed to handbaskets.

Gives a new understanding to the wolf chasing after Little Red Riding Hood, Don’t it?

Here’s another WAG which occurred to me as I was looking into these baskets. “Going to Hell in a handbasket” may have originally been ascribed a perceived meaning of “looseness” to a young woman.

But maybe I’ve just been at sea too long.

I had no idea my sig line was so fascinating. Cool!

Where are we going?
And why am I in this handbasket?

Harry Turtledove wrote an alternate history novel in which he had Teddy Roosevelt living on his Montana ranch (that much is true history) and using a wagon to get to the nearest city, Helena; he named the wagon “the Handbasket.”

Harry Turtledove wrote an alternate history novel in which he had Teddy Roosevelt living on his Montana ranch (that much is true history) and using a wagon to get to the nearest city, Helena; he named the wagon “the Handbasket.”

The only problem here is that the Shakers were celibate and did not promote marriage.
Some selected quotes from a web page about the Shaker view:
‘The Church professed to live a virgin life; and those in it who “waxed wanton against Christ,” and married, had “damnation, because they had cast off their first faith” of celibacy’

‘All who “marry and are given in marriage,” or who support that order, the Shakers term “the children of this world;” thus, on this ground, throwing heathens, Turks, Catholics, Protestants, infidels, etc. , all into one general class, or company’

‘It is the earthly, fleshly, relation that must be hated by all who would become followers of Jesus - Christians-“children of the resurrection,” of whom Jesus said, " They neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as angels of God in heaven"’