The NHA’s First Artifact

“The basket’s association with birth and new beginnings made it an ideal inaugural artifact for the collection.”


1895.1.1
Baby basket, ca. 1791. Rachel Swain (1771–1863). Ash, 8 x 23 x 21 in. Gift of Elizabeth Starbuck, 1894 (1895.1.1).

This basket is the first object collected by the Nantucket Historical Association. Elizabeth Starbuck (1812-1899), in whose house the association was organized in May 1894, lent it to the nascent society within two weeks of its founding, and her heirs donated it permanently in 1928. The basket was woven by Rachel Swain (1771–1863), Elizabeth’s mother, for use as a bassinet to hold her infant children. According to early museum records, Rachel “was the mother of eleven children, and at the advent of each child, this basket was used, and then laid away until occasion again called it into service.” The basket’s association with birth and new beginnings made it an ideal inaugural artifact for the collection, a poetic gesture likely not lost on Elizabeth Starbuck.

Rachel Swain and two of her grandchildren, ca. 1860. Gift of Elizabeth Starbuck, 1900 (P857).

Rachel Swain was born Rachel Fish and married Jonathan Swain (1769–1843) in March 1791. Their first child arrived the following January, and the basket probably dates from around this time. The names of only nine children are known—five daughters and four sons—with Elizabeth being the youngest.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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