Nantucket Lightship Basket History


History: In 1659 when the first white settlers came to Nantucket a need arose for storage and transportation of household wares. Basket making was one of the many skills that that the friendly natives taught the new settlers. These early baskets were made with materials that were readily available at the time, namely ash, oak, or hickory. These woods were made into splints by pounding and separating along the annual rings. This style of weaving baskets is the origin of many styles of baskets still produced today. Of all these styles perhaps shaker baskets most readily reflect their connection to the original methods and materials used by the early settlers.

In the 1830's, as the whaling industry started to flourish, ships sailed further and further from their home ports as local whale numbers dwindled. When ships sailed into the Pacific they brought back a material used for basket construction by natives in that part of the world, namely, rattan. Rattan is a long vine-like jungle plant that looks much like bamboo except that it has a solid core. From this long vine natives would cut the outer bark off in long strips and use this strong yet pliable material for many things including basketry this material is better known as cane. The solid interior portion of the plant is referred to as reed which is also used widely in baskets as well as many other products.

 The introduction of rattan to the weaving process is one of the key elements that helped create the distinctive look of Nantucket baskets. The other elements, solid wooden bottoms, and the use of wooden molds. It was the combination of these three elements, as well as a keen sense of craftsmanship that gave Nantucket baskets their unique character.

In 1856 when the first Lightship was commissioned to warn ships of the dangerous shoals off the southern shores of Nantucket, many of the sailors took basket making materials with them to relieve themselves from the long hours of boredom. It is from this era that the baskets received the "Lightship Basket" moniker, and reached a state of refinement that caused them to be widely sought after.  The very first "purse" basket was produced during this era by the Lightship Captain Charles Ray. (shown to the right)  His grandson, third generation basket maker "Mitchy" Ray, taught the Nantucket style to  Jose Formosa Reyes who popularized the purse form decades later.
In 1945 Jose Reyes came to Nantucket to vacation and soon decided to stay. From his home in the Philippines he brought a working knowledge of rattan, and a sense of imagination that led him to a local basket maker.  He started  making traditional Nantucket baskets and after some experimentation he brought back the form you see above except the handle went across the long dimension of the purse.  He called these  "friendship baskets" , which today are possibly the most recognized and popular forms of this art. It is from this tradition of craftsmanship, creativity, and ingenuity that today's weavers draw upon to create their own personal expression of the Nantucket Lightship Basket. Most Baskets made on Nantucket in the 1940's onward are signed in various ways as shown below.