The days of the Nantucket Lightships and the baskets their crews produced began deep in America’s 19th century. Some accounts suggest the lightship service, providing a floating lighthouse for traveling whaling ships, began as early as the 1820s.
Certainly lightships like the South Shoal and the Cross Rip were lighting up the darkness by the middle of that Victorian century.
As the ships lay anchored in shallow waters off that Massachusetts Port of Nantucket Island, sailors faithfully namintained the necessary lights to guide seagoing ships.
Spare Time – In their spare time those same sailors discovered their talents as basket makers.
“Several sailors were always on board to keep the light burning.” notes Frances Johnson author of the Wallace-Homestead Price Guide to Baskets.
“Tours of duty on a lightship were usually eight months long, so the sailors began making baskets to avoid the boredom — and they developed their own style.”
As basket making progressed on board the lightships themselves, it was also taken up on shore. Like the skilled sailors, basket weavers on Nantucket Island crafted similar nesting baskets which would fit into one another in graduating sizes.
Popular – Nantucket Lightship baskets “became so popular, they began to be copied shortly after the first ones were shown,” adds Johnson.
“Differentiating between those actually made by sailors and those made by basket makers in the area requires an expert.”
In fact, some historians indicate both select groups initially obtained the bases for the baskets from the same sources on shore. The sailors would gather up sufficient supplies for a long stay when they returned to their waiting ships.
Essentially, the makers used a mold to fit a solid wooden base and then weave stips of canning or rattan. Using draw knives the makers cut splints from hardwood logs as ribs for the baskets.
The results were very durable and indeed flexible baskets of various sizes. The so-called mesting baskets varied in size from about 4 inches in diameter of about one pint to up to 14 inches in diameter or around 12 quarts of capacity.
Uses – Such baskets could be used for varying tasks from carrying produce to hauling firewood. They also became a great attraction for tourists who visited the island during the summer months.
As the crafting of these lighthouse baskets evolved, there were some modest changes.
Changes – Early on, for example, the ribs of the baskets were folded over and later were trimmed.
Rims were originally held with copper, or iron nails and tacks. Gradually brass tacks came into use.
The basket’s ears which steadfastly held the basket’s swing handles initially were wooden but eventually were replaced with brass metal.
Further, the lighthouse baskets at the beginning remained in a natural finish. Only later were they varnished by their makers.
Most research suggests the sailors aboard the lighthouse ships stuck almost entirely to baskets with handles. Experts like author Johnson suggests, “whether or not handless Nantucket baskets were made aboard the lightship or by people in the area who copied the work of sailors is unknown.”
Lollipop Basket – On the other hand the Nantucket Lollipop basket is frequently attributed to the sailors. It was a striking open round basket with staves extending above the time in lollipop-like form.
For the most part the seagoing weavers of the true lightship era went unheralded and unknown as their work became endeared.
Makers – However, at times, one of the makers would pencil an inscription onto the basket. Still others were branded on the base of the basket, or written in ink.
But all such signings were mostly the exception to an unwritten rule.
Eventually, especially after 1900, paper labels were applied to the bottoms of some of the baskets. In rarer cases drawings, maps, or even verse was incorporated onto the labels.
Technically, the lightship era ended in the middle 1880s when the lightship service ended.
However, similar baskets continued to be made, some by retired sailors now spending their days on land or others who skillfully imitated the craft.
Various modifications of the traditional Nantucket Lighthouse baskets continued to appear in the early 1900s and for the next few decades. A few traditional baskets were enhanced with added touches including red-painted cane.
Revised versions – Paper labels included the name of maker Ferdiand Sylvario, and others. The basket-making of old was rekindled when Jose Reyes arrived in Nantucket from the Philippines in 1945.
Reyes not only revised and reinstituted the art of basket making, but soon began producing a basket-purse novelty as well.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the basket-purses resembled small lighthouse baskets complete with swing handle. They were made further functional with a matching lid or a cloth on top for enclosing the contents. Frequently, they also had small nautical decorations of carved ivory.
Many of the Reyes-era baskets and basket-purses were signed by the now highly noted maker, Jose Formoso Reyes. The name was also sometimes encircled with an outline of the Nantucket Island itself.
Such items were understandably very appealing to the increasing number of affluent tourists during much of the 20th century.
Collectible – Today, Nantucket Lightship baskets remain highly collectible and desirable. Signatures and authentic labels make the baskets all the more treasured. Nesting baskets too command a premium price.
The Encyclopedia of Collectibles once declared, “Nantucket Lightship baskets are among the more valuable baskets you can find.
Value – A nest of eight from any time before the 1920s could go for $4,000 or more.” That was written in 1978. In recent years a set of 10 nesting lightship baskets sold at Skinner Inc. auction gallery for more than $20,000. They were produced by Reyes in the second half of the 20th century.