There is simply nothing more “uniquely Nantucket” than Nantucket Lightship Baskets. Although these amazing and often one-of-a-kind creations can be very expensive, an authentic handcrafted basket will become a family treasure handed down from generation to generation.
The early white settlers learned their basket-making skills from Native Americans who made their baskets from local materials such as ash, oak and hickory. These early baskets were not decorative pieces, but practical baskets used for basic household storage.
In the 1830s, whaling crews returned from voyages to the Pacific
with rattan, a material used by natives for making baskets in that part
of the world. This unique material quickly caught on with Nantucket
Rattan became one of the key elements that characterized the original lightship baskets. The baskets were also distinctive in that they were woven on a mold and each had a solid wooden base.
Lightships were first commissioned in Massachusetts in 1856. These ships functioned as floating lighthouses, providing light to passing ships in dark waters. With so little to do and so much time on their hands, the lightship crews tried their hands at weaving baskets and achieved great skill. The wooden bases were made on shore and the weaving and assembly took place on the ships. The baskets, which became known as "Lightship Baskets," for obvious reasons, were widely sought after. Most collectors and historians agree that the finest lightship baskets ever made were those made by lighthouse crews in the late 1800s.
Lightships remained in active service through the early 1900s. However, the government decided that the onboard basket weaving was “moonlighting” and the crews were no longer allowed to make baskets while on ships after 1900. Basket making returned to the island.
The basket industry was revitalized, and some might even say revolutionized, in the 1940s. Basket maker Jose Reyes added a decorative carving to the top of his baskets, creating what he called "Friendship Baskets." These were no longer just practical baskets used for storage and transporting goods, these baskets were works of art. Reyes's Friendship Baskets became extremely popular and are still highly valued today.
Today there are several shops and/or galleries on the island where weavers continue to follow the tradition of their predecessors, creating authentic handcrafted baskets in their own workshops. These craftsmen and women add their own unique personal touch to their baskets, and the 150-year-old Nantucket tradition of the lightship basket lives on in their fabulous creations.
A Word to the Wise!
Still, it is the rare antique originals that command the greatest interest and highest prices. And the prices can be very high, some selling for more than $5000. As a result, this is one case in which the old axiom couldn’t be truer - Buyer Beware! There are basket sellers who will try, intentionally or otherwise, to pass off inferior baskets or cheap imports as original Nantucket Lightship Baskets. You’ll want to be sure you do a little research before buying your own Nantucket basket.
Keep in mind that authentic baskets are handcrafted and never mass produced. They are never made with plastic or faux ivory, and they are never stained to create an antique finish. All authentic baskets should have a signature and date hand carved into its base. You should always be able to trace an authentic basket back to its actual maker.
Nantucket Lightship Museum
This interesting and informative museum is "dedicated to preserving Nantucket’s rich history of basket making as an art form."
"The Museum exhibits and documents a wide range of Lightship Baskets from the earliest forms created in the 1850s to present-day creations. Throughout the season, the Museum features changing basket exhibits and provides demonstrations and lectures by experienced basket makers, weavers, historians, scrimshanders, and restoration experts."
The museum is a must-see for those who want to learn more about these amazing baskets. You can even taking basket weaving classes!
To learn more about the Museum: Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum
Shopping for Lightship Baskets
Whether you’re interested in an inexpensive reproduction, a contemporary but authentic design, or a rare antique basket, there are several shops and galleries on Nantucket where you can find exquisite creations. All of the Nantucket shops should have baskets available for sale, but many will take custom orders so that you can buy a one-of-a-kind basket that is uniquely Nantucket and uniquely you.
Besides the traditional basket styles, you can also find purses, totes, bicycle baskets, ring baskets, salt and pepper caddy baskets, mail boxes, and even tiny golden baskets worn as pendants.
Shops and Galleries:
Alan SW Reed Nantucket Lightship & Friendship Baskets
11 First Way
New, Vintage & Antique Nantucket Baskets
All new baskets are created by renowned basket makers and carvers, Allan Reed and Nap Plank.
Frank Sylvia, Jr. Antiques
Zero Washington Street
Features baskets made by artist Jymm Russell, considered to be one of the best basket makers in the US. An amazing achievement considering that he lost his sight years before he started making baskets!
Hills Of Nantucket Gift Gallery
40 Straight Wharf
Specialty gifts, jewelry, baskets, ornaments
Featuring handcrafted baskets by Maggie Silva and Sherry O’Donnell. Check out their basket totes, ring baskets and salt and pepper caddy baskets!
Michael Kane Baskets of Distinction
18A Sparks Avenue
Unique handcrafted lightship baskets from a master basket maker; originator of the tight weave.
Nantucket Basket Shop
80 Old South Road
Nantucket Island's most complete basket center featuring custom made-to-order baskets, repairs and restoration services, and basket weaving classes.
154 Main Street
Sylvia Antiques specializes in 18th, 19th, and early 20th century marine-related items, including Nantucket lightship baskets, scrimshaw, and early Nantucket art.
Internet Orders Only:
The Nantucket Basket
Featuring customized handmade baskets by basket-maker Wendy Marshall, as well as repair and restoration services.
Nantucket Basket Weavers
Features handcrafted baskets woven by local Nantucket artists.
Nantucket Lightship Baskets
Customized lightship baskets made by Martha Lawrence, an internationally recognized basket weaver.
Simply Nantucket Baskets
Handcrafted baskets by basket weaver Kathleen Becker; custom orders.