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In agricultural use, a hamper is a wide-mouthed container of basketwork that may often be carried on the back during the harvesting of fruit or vegetables by hand by workers in the field. The contents of the hamper may be decanted regularly into larger containers or a cart, wagon, or truck.
The open ventilation and the sturdiness offered by a hamper has made it suitable for the transport of food, hence the use of the picnic hamper.
At one time it was common for laundry services to leave a large basketwork container with a lid which is now commonly referred to as a clothes hamper. The same type of container would be used to return clean clothing, which would be put away by the laundry service and the empty container left in place of the full container for later pickup.
This type of daily or bi-daily hamper service was most common with Chinese laundry services in 19th century England and America.
There is a long tradition of community and social philanthropy and charity related to hampers, in which persons or community groups donate to needy people a hamper of food, clothing, toiletries, cleaning products, or other household necessities, to assist with their family economy.
Up until the mid 20th century, in the Western tradition, the hamper was a basket that could be carried by the donor and physically handed to the recipient. This limited the size of the gift to food ingredients for at most several days, or other necessities for one to two weeks. The basket itself was a useful item around the house or farm, and any cloth wrapping for the food or lining of the basket would also be usable by the recipient family.
In more recent times, the hamper would likely be a plastic bag or acrylic fibre bag of a size that can be carried, with tinned or packaged goods. A Christmas hamper is likely to be bigger and have some party or celebratory foods, or toys. Hampers can also contain related festive foods. A clothing bin serves as a storage container for large amounts of donated clothing.
A number of companies exist that sell ready-made food hampers or provide customers the service of compiling a custom hamper for them, which may involve company staff going shopping for requested specific items on behalf of individual customers. Such hampers are popular gift items in the UK and Ireland. Hamper companies usually link their services to certain occasions, most particularly Christmas, and provide options for payment across the year. Grocers, delis and supermarkets may also stock ready-made hampers, though mostly just on a seasonal basis, and with a selection generally limited to items stocked by the store or sourced from their own suppliers.
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- In the case of very large grocery chains, this may however still be a substantial selection.