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Rare Oval Nantucket Basket

"Nantucket Island: Whaling port, Quaker stronghold, a sandy place isolated by a location thirty miles at sea, cut off from the mainland by frequent storms and wars, this is the setting in which this unique basket tradition developed" according to Katherine and Edgar Seeler in their book, Nantucket Lightship Baskets.

Because the Nantucket Basket was made by a group of people in an isolated community of families closely connected there is uniformity in their construction, not unlike Shaker and Taconic Baskets. As with all Nantucket Baskets from the third period (1830/40's) forward, the baskets were woven of rattan. This material comes from a climbing vine of the palm family and grows in tropical countries. It is also called "cane" and was used for chair seats and so was readily available to basketmakers as well as from the whaling vessels that plied the South Pacific. The second and very important characteristic of a Nantucket Lightship Basket is the use of wooden bottoms. This allowed for the production of a very strong basket. Almost any type of wood that was available was used for these baskets, but usually it was a hard wood that was used. Finally, molds were utilized in the construction of these baskets. Because of this, greater accuracy regarding size was obtained and nests of baskets could be more easily made. Nantucket Baskets are noted for their homogeneous quality of beauty and workmanship.

Beginning with the Lightship era, we see the baskets being made at sea by the men on Lightships, specifically No.1, Nantucket, New South Shoal, which was established twenty-four miles south of Sankaty Light in 1856. On this lightship, ten people lived and took care of the two lights. With nothing to do but clean the sixteen lamps and stand watch, they made baskets, continuing to do what some of them had been doing on land. Each man stayed on board for eight months at a time and in this isolation they produced some of the finest baskets made. It is interesting to note that this basketmaking activity has been compared to the "scrimshawing" activity on the whaling vessels, only on the lightship the scrimshawing meant preparing the strips of rattan for the manufacture of the baskets. Thus the romance of the Lightship Basket continues . . . conjuring up the lonely life of men on a ship anchored on dangerous shoals off Nantucket with nothing to do but tend the light and make baskets day after day.

Nantucket Baskets were made in a variety of shapes and sizes, with those having swing handles most commonly found. The introduction of baskets of oval form is credited to Davis Hall (1828-1905), a master craftsman who had a reputation for making fine baskets. Oval Nantucket Baskets are a more technically difficult form to make and are less often found than the swing handled ones.

This Nantucket Basket is made with rattan weavers that are thin and the basket presents the traditional appearance of the baskets of the latter half of the 19th Century. It may have been made on board the South Shoal or on land. The two pieces of the rim are laced together with rattan very evenly and no attempt has been made to hide the nails that are used to attach the ribs to the rim. The mahogany bottom, being oval would have been made by hand. The rim includes a middle strip, between the outside and inside pieces. This serves to cover the rib ends, which are no longer turned over, and it also prevents dirt from getting into the crack between the two rim pieces. Nails are used as well as lacing to keep the rim intact. There is an old varnish finish as is found on most Nantucket Baskets. With its warm, mellow, nut-brown patina this Nantucket Basket is most certainly 19th century and a fine example of the genre. It is in excellent condition with but on tiny area of loss to a weaver. The two plugs in the bottom boards are missing, but do not detract from the appearance or sturdiness of the basket. It is a fine example of a rare form, its particular use somewhat eluding us, but it reminds us very much of the Shaker Sewing Baskets.
Size is 11"long x 9" wide and 4-1/4" tall.

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