For many reasons, boat lovers and landlubbers love Nantucket. The well-known island 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast has great maritime history, picturesque scenery, unspoiled beaches, boutique shopping, a nice marina and seafood galore.
It’s also home to a unique basketmaking tradition developed in the second half of the 19th century by manly men who manned the lightships that warned of dangerous waters around the island.
Today, the Nantucket baskets they wove are ubiquitous to the island as both a popular souvenir and a highly collectible object that reflects the island’s fascinating history and heritage.
Baskets Born of Necessity and Boredom
In 1820, the United States began building and converting ships into lightships in coastal waters and the Great Lakes. These vessels served as floating beacons to identify perilous shoals, reefs and shifting channels in places where lighthouse construction wasn’t possible. The ships housed bright and navigational light beacons atop their masts to guide maritime traffic.
The waters around Nantucket were well traversed and very treacherous. In Nantucket Sound, sandbars muddled traffic, so the U.S. government placed a lightship there in 1823 to help mark a safe path by the island along a popular commercial route between New York and Boston. It became known as the Cross Rip Lightship.
The Nantucket South Shoals off the island’s southeast coast proved hazardous for transatlantic shipping. In some locations, the water can be as shallow as three feet. The shoals were a notorious shipwreck site, so the government stationed a lightship at the South Shoals in 1854. A lightship operated at the South Shoals until 1983 when it was replaced by a large navigation buoy. It was at the time America’s last working lightship. By 1985, new technologies rendered the old lightship program obsolete.
Lightships were manned vessels, and many Nantucket men were hired to work on the ones around the island. Some of these men had been whalers from back when Nantucket was the epicenter of the whaling industry. Rough coastal weather made the lightboat service perilous. For example, they had no onboard electricity, and the crew’s only warmth was furnished by manually tending coal-burning stoves — always at risk of breaking loose from their mounts and spilling hot coals during fierce storms that churned up mountainous waves that crashed over the ship.
It was lonely, too. I’ve read how life on a lightship was likened to a term of solitary confinement combined with the horrors of seasickness. It’s no wonder these men began making baskets to while away the time.
According to several sources, it is likely a man named Thomas James introduced basketmaking to men on the lightships. James, the story goes, had worked in the whaling industry and during his voyages supposedly made baskets in his spare time. When he began working on the South Shoals Lightboat, he took up his old pastime while on duty and sold his work on leave in Nantucket town. It wasn’t long before he taught his skill to his fellow lightship men.
Though the classic Nantucket basket is attributed to men aboard lightships in the mid-19th century, it’s important to remember that its distinctive design was probably inspired by baskets originally woven with ash wood by the Wampanoags, the island’s indigenous people.
Lighthouse baskets typically were round and built on a mold with flat wooden bottoms to which staves (ribs) were attached to form the basic shape. Cane, also known as rattan, was then woven in and around the staves from bottom to top. Each basket was finished with a wooden handle. Tops and decorative elements weren’t added until later. These baskets became popular with locals and tourists and thus became known as Nantucket lightship baskets. They’re very desirable today among collectors.
Basketmaking Enters the 20th Century
By 1905, the last man from Nantucket manned a local lightship. Shortly thereafter, the federal government banned basket-making aboard lightships to end moon-lighting commerce. The craft then moved on island where it was taken up by a new generation of basket weavers who began personalizing their work and looking for ways to make them stand out and appeal to the growing tourist trade.
One of the most significant of this new generation of basket makers was José Reyes, a Filipino with an Education degree from Harvard, who served in the U.S. Navy fighting the Japanese and then after the war immigrated to Nantucket where his wife’s family had a home. Unable to find a job in education, he repaired cane furniture and learned to make Nantucket lighthouse style baskets.
Reyes is credited in 1948 for adding a top to the lightship basket and turning it into a purse for women. These purses, later known as “friendship purses,” quickly became de rigour for well-to-do summer residents. Reyes later included ivory carvings to adorn the purse tops. Rumor has it the name originated when a woman carrying one of Reyes’ purses while visiting Paris noticed another woman with the same purse. She yelled out “Friendship!” and the two strangers became lifelong friends linked by their shared love of Nantucket.
Paul Whitten, another basket maker, helped elevate artistic appreciation for the Nantucket basket when he was invited in 1974 by the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery to submit one of his pieces in a national arts and crafts competition. His basket was selected to appear in the gallery and then tour the country with other competition winners as part of a traveling exhibit. Whitten’s basket was purchased by the Smithsonian for its permanent collection. Whitten also wrote extensively about Nantucket baskets, which has been important to preserving the history of this unique craft.
Today the lightship basket influence can be seen in jewelry, cribs, bike baskets and all sorts of decorative pieces sold on and off island. Yours truly even owns a pair of tall handsome lamps modeled on the classic Nantucket Basket. There’s even an auction market for exceptional baskets woven on Nantucket. A recent piece went for more than $100,000. Who’d have thunk it?
Nantucket Lighthouse Basket Museum
If you’re visiting Nantucket and want to delve deeper into the history of these unique baskets and learn more about their makers, you won’t want to miss the Nantucket Lighthouse Basket Museum. It features a permanent collection of baskets, special exhibits and basket weaving classes. The museum website also has a variety of fascinating videos, including an interview with noted basket weaver José Reyes.
Location: 96 Main St.,
Nantucket, MA 02554
Hours: May 28 – October 17, open daily 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.