Lightship Basket History

A sandbar only nine miles long, the island of Nantucket has had a disproportionate impact for its size. By the mid-nineteenth century, the product of its whaling fleet lit lamps around the world. Today its name is usurped by retailers attempting to attach a certain cachet to a new product. Nothing, however, is more uniquely "born of Nantucket" than the lovely Nantucket Lightship Basket.

Geographically isolated by thirty miles of water, island basketmakers developed a distinct form in the early part of the 19th century. The fully evolved basket was greatly influenced by the tightly-staved construction of the cooper's cask, an important element in the island's whaling economy. The basket featured a slotted wooden bottom into which hardwood staves were inserted. The bottom was bolted to an oval or round wooden mold around which were woven strips of rattan. The basket was finished with wooden rims which mimicked the cooper's "hoops".

The most distinctive feature of this new form was its incorporation of rattan as a weaver, replacing the wooden splints found in Indian baskets. Rattan, brought home by returning whalers, was such an unusual weaving material that the baskets began to be called "rattan baskets".

When the Number One New South Shoal lightship was placed in service fifteen miles southeast of the island in 1856, its crew of ten islanders brought aboard materials to make "rattan" baskets. Within another two decades, as dozens of these handsome baskets were created by the lightship's crew, the designation changed from "rattan" to "Nantucket Lightship". Although graceful and beautifully crafted, these early baskets were utilitarian - made primarily for family use as sewing, storage and gathering baskets.

Life aboard the lightship was dangerous, cold and dismal. The crew faced months of isolation when relief ships could not reach them with supplies or letters. Their shipboard tasks, however, were less onerous than those of sailors on merchant or whaling vessels, leaving much idle time which many crew members filled with basketmaking.

When the Number One New South Shoal was decommissioned in 1892, basketmaking returned to the island. However by the 1930's the craft was in danger of dying out. Fortunately at the end of World War II, a Philipine native, Jose Reyes, arrived on the island. Under the tutelage of Mitchell Ray, Reyes revived the craft and created his own distinct form - the Nantucket Lightship Basket purse.

The craft is in little danger of dying out today. However it is threatened by basketmakers who do not maintain the exacting standards of the craft as well as by cheaply-made imports. A beautifully constructed basket will outlast the purchaser and become a family heirloom. Like any other investment, it is wise to become educated on the elements that constitute a true Nantucket Lightship Basket.

Read more about life aboard the lightship and the craft's early artists in Lightship Baskets of Nantucket.

Email Martha