Located thirty miles off the south coast of Cape Cod, the island of Nantucket possesses a unique identity, which its geographical isolation has always protected. Nantucket s original settlers, the Wampanoag Indians, gave it the name meaning "faraway island," or "land far away at sea." The island, an oversized sandbar that measures only 3-1/2 by 14 miles, was discovered by European explorers in 1602. These early settlers were mostly Quakers, whose pious, quietly forbearing no-nonsense approach to life helped to establish Nantucket s distinctive character.
It was here on Nantucket that the American whaling industry was launched which dominated the island s economy and made it the center of the whaling world for many years. In fact, at the peak of the whaling trade in the early 19th century, Nantucket was the third largest city in Massachusetts, outranked by only Boston and Salem.
Nantucket basketmaking, which probably began in the 1840 s, just as the whaling industry began to decline, was an outgrowth of the extensive coopering industry on the island. The principal product of the whaling industry was, of course, whale oil which was stored and shipped in oak barrels made by the skilled coopers. These coopers undoubtedly made the first Nantucket baskets as well, transferring some of the trades techniques, forms and terms "staves" for ribs, "hoops" for rims, "bails" for handles to the craft of basketmaking.
Like the buckets and barrels they resemble, early Nantucket baskets were sturdy and functional. They were designed for hard everyday use. The artisans built them around bases of riven oak. They created a groove around the outside edge of the base into which they could insert thin upright ribs, or staves to form the sides of the basket. These staves were closely spaced to provide a tight structure. A lashed, hooped rim, again like the rim of a barrel finished the basket form and held the ribs in place at the top. Tiny copper, iron, or brass nails secured the staves to the rim.
The weavers shaped their baskets around carved wooden molds or forms using imported rattan which the whalers brought to Nantucket after encountering it in their voyages to the Pacific where it was cheap, plentiful and readily available. Being strong and pliant, it allowed the Nantucket basketmakers to achieve an extremely thin and tight weave structure. Rattan quickly became the signature material of the Nantucket crafts people.
The bails or handles (the majority of Nantucket baskets have swing handles) were attached to ears at either side of the basket rim so they would lie flat against the top when the basket was not in use. These handles, carved from hardwood were typically bowed in a sweeping arc that mirrored the shape of the basket. We sometimes find baleen from the keratinous plates of the right whale integrated into the baskets as weavers and the contrast between the light brown rattan and the dark gray baleen makes for a beautiful basket. Because the baskets were made using molds it was possible to be very precise in the sizing and allowed for making nested sets of baskets.
As whaling declined during the second half of the 19th century, Nantucketers looked other ways of making a living. During this period, keepers aboard the lightship, New South Shoal largely established the Nantucket Basket tradition. In this solitary environment, filled with endless hours of leisure, isolation and discomfort the keepers found that basketmaking helped pass the time and also provide a few extra dollars to supplement their wages. Thus the term "Lightship Basket" was born.
Basketmaking aboard the lightship came to an end in the 1890 s. The New South Shoal was blown off its mooring a final time in 1892 and although other ships replaced it, they were increasingly staffed with off-islanders who were not interested in making baskets.
Many fine baskets have been made in the hundred years since the New South Shoal s final bout with the weather and many baskets were also made on the island both during and after the lightship years. By the 1930 s, only a handful of makers were keeping the craft alive, but the tradition survived and continues to this day. Today s baskets differ from traditional baskets, however, in their strong emphasis on the decorative elements that were introduced by Jose` Reyes in the 1940 s.
Nantucket lightship baskets remain among the best loved of all American baskets for their form, beauty, and craftsmanship. They bring us back to the time when the keepers of the Lightship perfected their craft and left a legacy to be enjoyed by future generations.
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