Baskets and Sailors Valentines by Brandy Llewellyn

History of Nantucket Baskets

History of Nantucket Baskets

Nantucket is a small island several miles off the coast of Massachusetts. In the early 1700’s, it was bustling with activities revolving around the whaling trade.

Imagine a handful of sailors in the mid-1800’s on a stationary ship off the New England coast. Their sole responsibility was to warn other ships of the dangerous shoals nearby, by raising and maintaining a large lantern. To pass the long hours on board after their duties, some of the sailors aboard these “lightships” would make baskets as gifts or for sale back on Nantucket Island .

The sailors would use wooden molds, sometimes cut from old ship masts, to maintain the basket’s shape. They would attach a wooden base to the mold and then taper and fit vertical staves to the base.

Once properly spaced, the actual weaving could begin. Both the vertical staves and the horizontal “weavers” were made of rattan or reed, brought back by Pacific sailing ships. When the basket was completed, the sailor would inscribe his name on the bottom of the base.

The Nantucket “lightship” basket era lasted from 1854 until 1905, when stationary lighthouses began to replace the ships. The baskets made after that time are referred to simply as “ Nantucket baskets”. Nantucket baskets, known for their sturdiness and beauty, are today, highly collectible. The “lightship” baskets are often valued in the thousands of dollars. Today, popular demand for quality-made pieces and the rising cost of materials have resulted in higher prices. Ladies’ handbags in the Nantucket lightship style were first introduced in the middle of the 20th century, and are extremely popular today. They are easily identified by a woven or wooden, loosely fitting top, adorned with a piece of scrimshaw, ivory, bone, or polymer. While different craftsmen have their own style, materials and shape, those basic tenets of the Nantucket basket remain the same.

Although lightships have been replaced with more modern ways of protecting our shores, the craft that began on them still flourishes today .