Nantucket – Lightship Baskets

Nantucket Lightship Baskets

The simple, sturdy oval and round woven Nantucket baskets, open or with lids, with handles or without, are fittingly the symbol of the industrious seafarers who made Nantucket Island the greatest whaling center in the world. The whalers aboard the lightships stationed near the island worked in shifts and in their spare time took up weaving baskets to sell ashore. Some of these early basketmakers were exceptionally prolific. Charles B. Ray, captain of several whaling ships, is said to have made 200 by 1866.

No one can be certain how the first white Nantucket settlers in 1659 learned to make the baskets. One theory is that they were taught by the friendly natives of the Wampoanoag tribe. Or, they might have learned from the settlers in New Hampshire, who supplied the islanders with lumber.

By the early 1800′s, when farming and raising sheep failed to yield much of a living, the Island men turned to whaling in nearby waters. Later, as the local supply of Atlantic whales dwindled, the whalers sailed farther into the Pacific where they met Asian weavers. Now their precious cargo of whale oil and other products also included cane for weaving baskets. Imported from the Philippines and China, this Asian cane was far more flexible for the staves and easier to work with.

Another characteristic of Nantucket baskets came with the innovation of a solid wood bottom for the baskets, which made them much sturdier. And, as skilled woodworkers, Islanders also used wooden molds that ensured a uniform size and shape for nests of baskets. During whaling’s heyday, virtually every ship had a cooper aboard; it was probably these craftsmen who taught their mates how to make these improvements to their basketry. The crew of the Nantucket South Shoal lightship is credited with creating the first woven cane baskets with wooden bottoms that were sold in the local shops.

After World War II, the Philippine native Jose Formoso Reyes (born 1902) came to Nantucket; unable to find work as a teacher, he learned basketmaking from Captain Ray’s grandson, Mitchell. The talented and innovative Reyes added a woven lid to the open basket, transforming it into a woman’s purse. In the 1950′s, he would hang these purses along his fence on Orange Street and sell them for about $18. A decade later, they were selling for $150; by the 1980′s the purse-baskets were bringing $400 to $500 each. Now the baskets made by Reyes increase in value every year and ones in excellent condition with an ivory top and double handles can bring thousands.

But the true antiques are the open baskets made by the original lightship sailors such as Ray, Hall, Captain Thomas James and Andrew Sandsbury. Lightship baskets never wear out, they just grow more beautiful with age. Tradition has it that Ray signed the bottom of his baskets with this prophetic verse; “I was made on Nantucket. I’m strong and I’m stout. Don’t lose me or burn me and I’ll never wear out.” This tradition continued into the 20th century when his grandson Mitchell included it on the bottom of many of his baskets.

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