History of Nantucket Baskets

Product History

The history of the Nantucket basket began in the mid 1800’s when the first Lightship baskets were woven by island men serving duty on the lightships off the coast of Nantucket.  Today, the Nantucket Lightship Basket represents a proud tradition of American craftsmanship and an emblem that says “Nantucket.”  These baskets are now recognized throughout the world for their beauty and are considered an exquisite and usable collector’s item that can be passed down from generation to generation.  To own a Nantucket Basket is to own a piece of American history

To understand what a Nantucket Lightship Basket is, one must know what a Lightship is. Going back to the 18th century, lightships were “sea-going vessels designed to function much like an earth-bound lighthouse” (NLBM 4). These ships were stationed at offshore shoals or ledges. The Nantucket South-Shoals were a “notorious shipwreck site” so the lightships were placed their to warn ships of the hazards.

It was aboard these ships that basket making emerged. “Their craft was as much a means of diversion from confinement, as it was a source of extra income” (NLBM 5). They brought materials to make these rattan baskets on board in 1856. They made the baskets and all the materials needed to construct them in their many hours of free time for family needs and then later for shops on Nantucket. “As “rattan baskets” began to be associated primarily with the lightship, they were referred to as the “Nantucket Lightship Baskets” (Lawrence 34).

During the 50 years that these crewmen were making baskets at sea, the craft continued on the island as well by retired crew or by people and family taught by former crewmembers. They used any materials and woods available to them in their construction. It was a pastime and hobby for many Nantucketers of this time but did not seem to spread past the island. The prices of baskets sold in this time were inexpensive but are now considered antiques and are sold for thousands of dollars.

Jose Reyes is the man responsible for the future of Nantucket Baskets. Originally from the Philippines, a series of events led him to Nantucket where he created a covered basket known as a purse. These purses sold “like hotcakes” in the summer of 1948 (Lawrence 62). Reyes’ bags were so popular that his name truly insured that the craft would not be forgotten.

In today’s day, these baskets have become more contemporary. They are now designed more for appearance rather than utilitarian functions such as storing dried goods and materials.  Now there are ice buckets, wine coolers, baby cradles, purses and more that are still one hundred percent functional. Today, Nantucket baskets are found all over the world. They started off strictly in Nantucket and spread to the main land then south to people’s winter homes and can now be found worldwide.

Nantucket baskets are a craft of the past and will remain a craft of the future.

Product History What makes it a Nantucket Lightship Basket?

For a basket to be considered a lightship basket it must have four key components: a wooden bottom, a mold for shaping and weaving, strips of cane for weaving, and rims secured by nails. To give a quick briefing of the process, some of the supplies needed are a mold, base, staves, cane, and a rim. After the base is secure, you have to taper the staves. After all of the staves are put into the base around the mold you then have to weave around going over and under each stave. The last steps are attaching the rim, lashing, and polying the basket.

D.E.L.S., along with many other self-employed teachers, teach the art of this craft.  They travel to a variety of different places by request to teach the growing art.  There are also many different teachers throughout the world who hold classes.

Lawrence, M. Lightship Baskets of Nantucket. Pennsylvania: Schiffer, 2000.
Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum.(NLBM) “Through the Collector’s Eye.” May 25-Oct.6 2007.
Stanek, E. “Michael Kane’s Magnum Opus.” Nantucket Today Sept/Oct. 2006:34-40.