History of Nantucket Baskets

 History of Nantucket Lightship Baskets

15" Nantucket basket woven by Linda Hebert, 1983






Nantucket Lightships Baskets originated in the mid-1800s and the lidded Nantucket Lightship Basket was designed in the 1948 by Jose Reyes.

The "Lightship" in "Nantucket Lightship Basket" is probably the part that most people have questions about. Lightships were once the first warning of shallow waters at sea- near harbor entrances and in shallow waters (shoals) but they've long since been replaced by mechanical buoys. A lightship is (was) a vessel that was fitted with lights and
moored at sea in such areas that needed marking to warn approaching ships. They were essentially manned buoys. Men needed to be on board because the first lights were oil lamps that needed frequent re-filling and repairs.

The first lightship was stationed at Chesapeake Bay. Others were added along the coast- 10 in 1824, a total of 30 by 1841, and finally, in 1900 there were 56 lightships stationed on both the East and West coasts, and the Great Lakes.

Nantucket Lightship Baskets
In 1856, the No. 1 Nantucket Lightship was commissioned to service 24 miles south of Sankaty Light. Here it is believed that the Nantucket Lightship Basket was born. The men stationed to monitor the ship for months at a time were on two watches. This provided leisure time which they began to fill with the weaving of baskets. Baskets had been woven on Nantucket for as long as it has been inhabited, but the Lightship baskets were quite unique with their combination of mold-woven cane sides and wood spokes emanating from a grooved wooden bottom. The quality of the Nantucket Lightship Baskets was superior to the plain baskets which had preceded them. The first molds were made from shipmasts, but later lathe-turned molds enabled weavers to create nested sets which fit one inside the other in graduating sizes. There was a time when probably every household on Nantucket had a few Nantucket baskets around- at least in the attic, if not in use.

Value of Antique Nantuckets
Needless to say, a set of these baskets from the period of the original days is quite valuable today. A nested set of 6 sold at auction at Sotheby's in 1994 for $119,000. However, the word "antique" sure has a far range these days. I chuckled to see a 1965 Nantucket basket being sold as "antique". Yes, anything 50 years old is technically antique. A visit to ebay always shows a variety of what's available if you want to purchase one of the old ones. Actually, the average price of $1500 for a medium sized basket from the 1870s to 1920s seems to have remained rather stable.

Jose Formosa Reyes
Jose Reyes came to Nantucket in 1945 from the Phillipines and his clever addition of the woven lid attached with cane wrapped leather straps to make a purse is known worldwide today. Reyes switched from hardwood staves to reed staves. He also added a piece of carved whale ivory in the form of a seagull or seashell to the lid, some of the ivory etched with ink-filled drawings: the "scrimshaw" of whaling days.

(NOTE: A search of the Skinner Auction House sales shows that a 1950s Reyes Lightship purse, 7", sold for $3555 in 2008.) 

The Nantucket Lightship Purses were immediately desirable as status symbols among both locals and visitors to Nantucket. However, it was definitely a known that if it wasn't woven by a Nantucketer on Nantucket, it WASN'T a Nantucket basket. I remember learning to weave my first Nantuckets in classes around 1982 or 83 from an elderly Nantucket weaver. One of my classmates knew the man and arranged for him to come over to Cape Cod to teach us. Certainly, none of us in the class even considered making these baskets for re-sale. After all, they wouldn't be "real" Nantuckets!!

Nantucket Baskets Today
A lot of the Nantucket weaving philosophy has changed since the 1980s. Today Nantucket Lightship Baskets are woven all over the U.S. and no one- except perhaps the Nantucket Islanders themselves :-) - questions the weaving by non-islanders. Weaving a Nantucket is a basket challenge which many weavers like to present to themselves. There's no doubt that the smooth lines and the perfection of weaving over a mold create a lovely symmetry. In fact, were it not for the great expense of the molds themselves, there would probably be a lot more of them woven.

contents©2001 Linda Hebert - Not to be reprinted in any form without permission of the author.
Linda Hebert
V. I. Reed & Cane Inc.

Share on Facebook