A BRIEF HISTORY OF NANTUCKET LIGHTSHIP BASKETS

I’ve received a bunch of questions about the history and tradition of Nantucket lightship baskets after I shared the lightship basket that my mom passed down to me at my bridal shower earlier this summer. I was curious to learn more about them myself, so I did a little research at the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum and talked to my mom and Grandy about how their baskets came to be. I hope this is interesting to some of you!

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{The Nantucket lightship basket my mom passed down to me!}

Authentic lightship baskets are woven with rattan or cane, have a solid wooden base, and are woven on a wooden mold. The wooden base provides strength and structure for the rest of the basket, which explains the durability and heirloom quality of these baskets as they are passed from one generation to the next.

While many Nantucket lightship baskets are carried as handbags today, the original baskets were more utilitarian in nature and usually intended to nest within one another, often in groupings of two or four. Many of the early baskets had one or two handles and were left open at the top.

{Carrying my Nantucket lightship basket for the first time}

The history of Nantucket lightship baskets dates back more than 150 years. They were initially woven on whaling vessels from the 1830s to 1850s, where woodworkers called coopers made barrels to hold whale oil after the whales had been speared. These coopers had all the ingredients for making these baskets on board: woodworking tools, raw materials, and long expanses of time waiting for whales to be caught and drained of their valuable fuel.

With a rise in the whaling industry off the coast of Nantucket, the state of Massachusetts commissioned “lightships” (think floating lighthouses) beginning in 1856 to provide light for passing ships in heavily trafficked waters and dangerous shoals leading up to the island in the hopes of preventing shipwrecks. The crewmen aboard these lightships had lots of idle time and wove “lightship baskets” during the day since the need to guide ships was primarily after dark.

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{My Grandy, Aunt Jill, and mom’s Nantucket lightship baskets at my bridal shower}

According to many historians, some of the best lightship baskets were constructed between 1870 and 1890. The government actually prevented the crewmen’s ability to weave baskets aboard the lightships in the early twentieth century, considering this work moonlighting. Consequently, the making of these baskets moved from sea to land, but retained the name lightship baskets.

Over the ensuing forty years, molds, tools, and tricks of the trade were shared among artists who made a living weaving these baskets. Beginning around 1900, prominent local weavers would sign their baskets, adding to their value over time.

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{A Nantucket lightship basket art print in our powder room}

 

In 1948, a weaver named Jose Formoso Reyes came to Nantucket. He was a skilled craftsman who graduated from Harvard after growing up in the Phillipines. He contributed to a significant evolution in these baskets, adding a lid so women could use them as handbags. Charlie Sayle, a local fisherman, master carpenter, and ivory carver, carved a small ivory whale which was glued to the top of one of Reyes’s basket lids, creating the friendship lightship basket style so sought after today.

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{A Nantucket lightship basket clutch I fell in love with at Grandy’s surprise party, a week before my bridal shower!}

My Grandy received her first Nantucket lightship basket in 1954 as a gift from my grandfather. It was woven by Stephen Gibbs, with a small whale ivory carving made by Nancy Chase. She passed this basket onto my Aunt Jill upon her college graduation in 1976.

In 1966, Grandy and her husband went to Stephen Gibbs’s studio to pick up her lightship basket after a minor repair. Knowing from my grandfather that Grandy coveted a larger basket, Mrs. Gibbs suggested she try one that she had nearby. Grandy admired the beautiful basket, topped with an ivory seagull, in the mirror. Mrs. Gibbs suggested that Grandy open the lid, where to her great surprise she discovered an ivory quarterboard featuring her name and the year, prearranged by my grandfather. She was so surprised and overjoyed that she hugged not only my grandfather but Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs as well.

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My mother’s lightship basket was made for her as a college graduation gift in 1980. The basket was woven by Jeanne Reis (grandmother of Michael Kane, who still makes lightship baskets today) and the ivory carving on the top was engraved by Nancy Chase. The top includes many of my mother’s favorite things on Nantucket: Sankaty Lighthouse (where we took our engagement pictures!), the old windmill, and several of the island’s indigenous flowers. Despite appreciating the thoughtfulness of the gift, my mom has never carried a purse as long as I’ve known her, and graciously passed it down to me as an early wedding present. I could not have been more surprised and am so grateful as I know this is a piece I will cherish (and carry!) for the rest of my life!

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of these baskets, I strongly encourage a visit to the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum (49 Union Street) next time you’re on island! I loved learning more about the history of these pieces — it makes me appreciate mine that much more!

P.P.S. If you’re curious about my family’s personal history on the island, here’s my post about what Nantucket means to me!

16 thoughts on “A BRIEF HISTORY OF NANTUCKET LIGHTSHIP BASKETS

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  1. Loved this post. Since I’ve spent most of my life in Texas & California I wasn’t familiar with these but now am going to be on the lookout for one (I think I can definitely pull the clutch off here in Santa Monica!). And just love all the family history with them and that your mom gave you hers— how special!!

  2. Loved your personal and beautiful basket story. You look fabulous carrying your basket. Grandy would delight in this! Thank you so much for sharing this delightful history.

  3. Amazing history & beautiful baskets! My 3rd great grandfather, George W. Ray, wove baskets on the South Shoal Lightship off Nantucket. He was a great uncle to basket weaver Mitchy Ray. I am currently continuing the family craft of Nantucket Basket weaving.

  4. Thanks for linking to the museum! We’re so thrilled you stopped by. Beautiful basket and love the story about your grandmother and Mrs. Gibbs.

  5. I love your baskets and their history. My mom has been making Nantucket Baskets for ~15 years, and I love how they develop that patina as they age. Check out blackstonebaskets.com if you’re interested. The ornaments are a great addition to a well appointed tree.

  6. We’ve had these purses at a few of our estate sales (north shore of Chicago). I think I’ll be buying the next one we have for sale!!! Thanks for the history of these beautiful baskets!