Of all the major, minor, and incidental objects and ornaments associated with Nantucket, perhaps the most closely, distinctly, and uniquely evocative of the island are the celebrated Nantucket baskets
Often called (somewhat erroneously) lightship baskets because some of them were actually produced aboard lonely lightships off the Nantucket coast, the specific origins of the distinctive “round” and “oval” Nantucket basket are (to coin a phrase) shrouded in obscurity. The addition of carved or engraved whale-ivory ornaments on those that have lids and their ready conversion to function as ladies’ purses and handbags, are latter-day developments that (welcome though they may be) have little to do with the original concept and purpose. But one thing is certain: the early appearance of Nantucket baskets has hitherto been vastly miscalculated (if it be calculated at all), largely because one of the earliest makers — perhaps the earliest maker — has long been misidentified in confusion with another island native who had a similar name. Unfortunately, some amateur historian must have stumbled upon the wrong man’s vital records and stopped there, little realizing that doing so would distort the entire history of the genre. And then the error was passed along to dealers and auctioneers ad infinitum.
Thus, for several decades baskets signed “R. Folger” have been attributed to island-born Roland Folger: and that’s the mistake. The real basket-making “R. Folger” was Rowland Folger, at best a distant relation (if he was any relation at all). Roland Folger had nothing to do with baskets and is not known to have produced any; he was a wagon driver and typesetter by trade and didn’t live on the island. On the other hand, Rowland Folger was a full generation or two older, lived his whole life on Nantucket, had his own handcrafts business in the village by 1823, and may have been making baskets almost that early. Roland Folger was not even born until 1849, by which time Rowland was already producing baskets — many of which he “signed” with the R. FOLGER template well known to collectors, curators, and dealers.
First, to expose the unwitting imposter. Thanks to bad research and the passing along of bad information among collectors, auction houses, and dealers, the wrong man, Roland C. Folger (1849–1920), has for years been erroneously proclaimed as the maker of the highly desirable baskets signed “R. Folger.” Roland, born 24 August 1849, was the son of Nantucket merchant Alfred Folger (1793–1848) and Mary Moores (1805–1888), who were later divorced. He spent his childhood on Nantucket but sought his fortune in Philadelphia. According to the 1880 U. S. Census, at age thirty-one he was living there with a Pennsylvania-born wife named Lillie, age twenty-eight, and four boarders. His occupation at the time: “Drives Wagon.” The wife was Lillian N. Quinn, whom Roland married in 1879 at the Nineteenth Street Methodist Episcopal Church, which suggests that he may have abandoned the Quaker heritage that had perhaps attracted him to Philadelphia in the first place, rather than, say, to Boston or New York. Lillie’s origins and subsequent activities are unknown. In 1900, Roland was living in Newton, Mass., boarding in the household of Charles A. Soule, a typesetter, with Roland’s marital status now reported as single and his occupation as typesetter. Further information is sparse, but the U. S. Census tabulation dated 10 January 1920 finds him a patient at the Taunton [Mass.] State Hospital. He died of carcinoma of the liver less than a month later, on 6 February 1920, and the official death record is unequivocal that Roland C. Folger, seventy-one years, five months, and twelve days (i.e., 1849–1920), was a “Printer retired about 15 years.” He is buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery on Nantucket. Roland was a teamster and typesetter who, early along, moved off island and eventually came back in a wooden box, to be buried in the sacred soil of his birthplace.
By contrast, Rowland Folger (1803–83), the real basket- maker and perhaps the originator of the basket genre, was a Nantucketer through and through. The son of Walter Folger Jr. (1765 –1849) and Anna Ray (1764 –1844), he may have made the requisite youthful whaling voyage customary among native sons of Nantucket; he assisted in his father’s shop, and he then went into business on his own. When he was starting out, he published a notice in the Nantucket Inquirer of 29 December 1823, proclaiming: “All kinds of ivory work; umbrellas, and bellows made and repaired; combs mended by the subscriber; at the shop near the dwelling house of Walter Folger Jr.” (Walter was clearly known well enough for this to be sufficient to provide directions to Rowland’s shop.) At the time the advertisement appeared, Rowland, age twenty, was newly married with a baby on the way. In July 1823, he had married Eliza Ann Luce (1807– 80), with whom he evidently had no fewer than four daughters and eight sons. The first child was Rowland Folger Junior (1824 –1908), who grew up to be a mariner and painter, but there is no evidence that he ever made any baskets. That Rowland Folger Senior was the actual “R. Folger” who made baskets is irrefutably confirmed by the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, which unequivocally names ROWLAND FOLGER (not Roland Folger), age sixty-seven (thus born circa 1803), husband of Eliza, age sixty-three; occupation: “Basket Maker.”
He came from excellent stock. Rowland was a first cousin to Allen Folger (1827–1906), who at the tender age of fourteen shipped as a boatsteerer in the whaleship Ganges, a highly responsible and quite dangerous berth usually occupied by a seasoned adult half again his age. Allen is said to have doubled Cape Horn twice and the Cape of Good Hope once before he left off whaling in 1863 to join the Union Army. He afterwards moved to Concord, New Hampshire; was elected to the state legislature; went as a delegate to the International Prison Congress in London in 1872; and was State Secretary of the YMCA during 1884– 90. The 1900 U. S. Census lists his occupation as “Evangelist” — the prevailing focus of his life, which he explains in his book, Twenty- five Years as an Evangelist (Boston, 1906).
Rowland was also first cousin to Barzillai T. Folger (1808 –60), the first whaling master to operate off the Aleutian Islands. Barzillai’s father — Rowland’s uncle Aaron (1776–1850) — was a cooper, mechanic, and keeper of the Nantucket Harbor Lighthouse. This may have been young Rowland’s principal connection to lightships, and perhaps Aaron had something to do with the genesis of “lighthouse” baskets.
It was an accomplished clan, but most prominent of all was Rowland’s own father, Walter Folger Jr. (1765 –1849). According to Nantucket historian Everett U. Crosby, Walter “mastered the French language and corresponded with many famous scientists. He was recognized as a philosopher, inventor, artisan, astronomer, mathematician, navigator, civil and mechanical engineer, surveyor, and practiced law for twenty years.” A watch-and-clock repairman by trade, Walter served as a town official, as a judge in the local and state courts, as state senator (1809– 15 and 1822), and served two terms in Congress during 1817– 21. Canonized in local memory as “a mechanical and inventive genius,” he is celebrated for having constructed an elaborate astronomical clock (now exhibited at the Nantucket Whaling Museum), for making significant innovations in telescopes and optical instruments, for shepherding numerous public-spirited improvements to the quality of life on the island, and for generally making himself Nantucket’s Solomon of Public Affairs.
That was quite an act to follow, but Rowland managed to make his mark as a maker of baskets. His legacy has proven equally enduring in the popular mind, and it’s high time that his actual name is connected with it.
These demonstrable facts alter the perception of Nantucket basket-making, and the cultural significance of the baskets themselves, in four respects. First, at least one of what Nantucket antiques dealer John Sylvia calls the “legendary weavers” of Nantucket baskets had only the most tenuous of relationships to any actual lightship: Folger’s baskets were produced ashore by a shopkeeper-artisan- entrepreneur and had nothing much to do with the long, idle, lonely hours of isolation at sea that some of the later makers endured aboard lightships. Second, the “R. Folger” baskets were produced a full generation or two earlier than has hitherto been credited, deepening their interest and their significance to the unique circumstances of life on the Island in its whaling heyday. Third, the much earlier vintage implies — virtually guarantees — influence on the subsequent productions of other basket-makers: it invites newfound comparisons across the entire history of Nantucket basket-making. And finally, Rowland Folger’s baskets were woven by an enterprising businessman who was deeply rooted and broadly connected to the mainstream of Nantucket social, commercial, and intellectual circles; unlike the isolated crews sequestered on lightships, Folger had daily contact and interactions with all kinds of folks on the island, and daily experienced the ebb and flow of island affairs. This signifies that Nantucket baskets are even more truly representative of the unique circumstances and cultural effervescence of Nantucket down through almost two centuries.
Stuart M. Frank, PH.D., a Research Fellow of the Nantucket Historical Association, is Executive Director Emeritus of the Kendall Whaling Museum, Senior Curator Emeritus of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, former Research Associate at Mystic Seaport, and an elected Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Among his books are Herman Melville’s Picture Gallery, Dictionary of Scrimshaw Artists, and Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved: Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Portions of the present article were published in Antiques & The Arts Weekly, March 20, 2015.