There are four distinctive elements that define a Nantucket lightship basket. The basket is woven on a mold; the staves are made of rattan; the weavers are of cane; and the basket has a solid wood base. Baskets with these characteristics developed on Nantucket during the course of the nineteenth century. When well made, they were robust and practical as storage and carrying baskets and were in wide use in the island’s stores, workshops, and homes. As the island transitioned from a whaling economy to a tourist economy in the 1860s and after, the island’s work baskets became popular keepsakes of an island visit.
How this style of rattan basket developed is obscure. There are roots, certainly, in the baskets of Nantucket’s Indigenous people. Native Wampanoags wove baskets using ash wood splints and weavers, through a process of stripping and soaking the layers of wood. The bottoms of their baskets were square and woven. Similar to lightship baskets, some Native baskets featured a carved flange on the handle to keep it in place. Farm baskets of New Hampshire, with their wooden bases, may also have provided inspiration for the development of the Nantucket lightship basket.
It is sometimes said that Nantucket baskets may have developed aboard the island’s whaling ships, where the intermittent work of whale hunting allowed the arts of scrimshanding, decorative knot tying, and chanty singing to flourish. There is no evidence of widespread rattan basket making on Nantucket whaleships, however, and no examples of Nantucket-style baskets made aboard a whaleship are known, although multitudes of scrimshaw baskets survive.
Some of the earliest makers associated with the distinctive Nantucket rattan basket were, indeed, former whalers, such as James Wyer, Charles B. Ray, Thomas S. James, and James F. Chase. But only in the case of Thomas James is there any indication that any of these men might have made baskets in the course of a whaling voyage. According to an oral tradition that may need to be taken with a grain of salt, James was the first man to return from a whaling voyage with baskets he had made in his spare time, baskets that were deep bottomed, with vertical staves and flat wood bases and folding wood handles. Whether he made baskets while whaling or not, James is one of the men responsible for encouraging the weaving of baskets aboard lightships stationed near Nantucket in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The first American lightships—essentially floating lighthouses—were established by the U.S. government beginning in the 1820s. Lightships began to mark the dangerous shoal waters around Nantucket starting in 1849. Many of the mariners hired to work aboard these floating beacons were Nantucketers; some had even been whalers. Thomas S. James was mate and later captain of the South Shoal Lightship near Nantucket beginning in the late 1860s. As Gustav Kobbé aptly put it in the Century Magazine in 1891, duty aboard the South Shoal Lightship was “at its best a life of desolation, with only a few gulls or Mother Carey’s chickens for visitors.” James and perhaps others who made rattan baskets ashore introduced basket weaving aboard the lightship, and trained other men in the craft. In this way, the distinctive baskets already made on Nantucket came to be associated with lightships, particularly the South Shoal Lightship, and the baskets started to be called Nantucket lightship baskets. As Harry Platt wrote in 1894, “For a quarter of a century the crew of the South Shoal light-ship have employed their leisure moments in making a peculiar kind of basket, known to those who visit Nantucket as light-ship baskets. . . . At first but one or two of the crew worked at them, and their products were very rough when compared with the neat baskets made to-day. Now every man aboard is an expert basket-maker, and about five hundred are sold by the stores in Nantucket each summer for the crew.”
The list of notable basket weavers who worked aboard the lightships is long, including Davis Hall, Andrew Sandsbury, William D. Appleton, George W. Ray, Charles F. Ray, S. B. Raymond, and Isaac Hamblin. Many basket collectors regard the baskets woven by these men and their crewmates to be among the finest made. Lightships remained on duty into the mid-twentieth century, but no Nantucketer worked on them after 1905. With shipboard basket weaving finally forbidden by the government sometime before 1916, in an effort to end moonlighting, the making of lightship baskets moved firmly ashore, back where it had started.
While no longer made afloat, the island’s basket continued to be called Nantucket lightship baskets. The craft passed from one weaver to another, and molds, tools, and trade secrets passed hand to hand as well. Mitchy Ray taught Fredrick Chadwick and later William Sevrens. A. D. Williams learned from William D. Appleton and later taught Ferdinand Sylvaro. Typically, the baskets of this time were woven over oak, ash, or hickory staves, with pine or mahogany bases. Most of the basket makers at this time signed or labeled their baskets.
José Formoso Reyes revolutionized the form and meaning of Nantucket baskets during the three-and-a-half decades he lived on Nantucket. He moved to Nantucket after World War II. Unable to find work as a teacher, he turned to basket weaving, supplementing his existing knowledge and skill with lessons from Mitchy Ray. Reyes experimented with shapes, lids, and the addition of ornamental carvings, soon developing the “Friendship basket” purse. His friend Charlie Sayle is credited with first suggesting that Reyes add carvings to the lids of his baskets.
The craft of Nantucket basket making has grown in the last forty years. Weavers have made creative changes to materials, adornments, techniques. Some have begun formal teaching, allowing many hobbyists, who might not be adept at woodworking, to create lightship baskets. An expansion of amateur makers has created a market for component pieces.
Major contemporary and commercial weavers who make or have made their primary living from weaving baskets (and, for some, teaching) in recent decades include Dick and Donna Cifranic, Terry Sylvia, Bill and Judy Sayle, Trish and Dick Anderson, Paul Willer, Michael Kane, Nap Plank, Alan Reed, Gerald L. Brown, Karol Lindquist, and Susan and Karl Ottison. Major teachers of this time include Terry Sylvia, Donna and Dick Cifranic, Karol Lindquist, Tim Parsons, and Peter Finch.
Part of the mission of the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum is “to mentor a new generation of lightship basket makers.” To fulfill that mission, the museum works diligently on continuing a year round youth weaving program. This program is accessible, at little or no cost to students, in the hope of cultivating new interest and future Nantucket basket weavers.