Nantucket Lightship Baskets: the Story Behind the Iconic Island Collectibles

Photography by Jim Bathie, Collection courtesy of the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum

Text by Katie Ellis

In the mid 1800s, the state of Massachusetts commissioned lightships—acting as floating lighthouses—to provide light to traveling ships in the heavily trafficked waters around the dangerous shoals to the south of Nantucket. 

Photography by Jim Bathie

With not much to do on board the lightships during the daytime hours, the crew kept themselves busy weaving baskets with elements found on the ship both from cargo storage and trade. Due to the seemingly endless hours they had for perfecting their creations, the lightship basket is truly a work of art. Each of these baskets shares the classic characteristics of being woven on a mold, being composed of rattan—otherwise known as cane—and sporting a solid wooden base. 

Photography by Jim Bathie

The wooden bases of the baskets were prepared on shore, while the weaving and assembly took place on the lightship. The crew found that the baskets had many practical uses around the house and were becoming popular with the island’s visitors. As time passed, the baskets were no longer made on lightships, but they retained the name of the Nantucket lightship basket.

Photography by Jim Bathie

For more than 100 years, the Nantucket baskets were predominately woven as open baskets. But in the late 1940s with the popularization of women’s accessory handbags, basket weaver José Formoso Reyes developed the lidded basket, known as the friendship basket, that was made popular with the help of Charlie Sayle, who added the decorative ivory carving to the top. 

Photography by Jim Bathie

And while many elements of the baskets have changed over the years, the connection to the past is still woven into every new basket created. Today, these baskets are collectible works of art both on Nantucket and around the world.  

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