Nantucket lightship basket makers moved to the island

NEW YORK – In the late 1800s, Nantucket lightship baskets were handcrafted by sailors aboard the lightships that were moored off the coast of Nantucket. These storied baskets are still being made today, though not on ships, and have kept their original name.

Weaving these rattan baskets was initially a pastime aboard New England whaling ships starting in the 1850s.

This Clinton Mitchell ‘Mitchy’ Ray basket is in the permanent collection of the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum. Photo courtesy of Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum

Later, lightship sailors had free time during the day as their work was at night, lighting hazardous waterways around the island to allow safe passage for merchant ships. They started making baskets, first for sweethearts and family members. This hobby soon turned profitable until the early 1900s when officials called a halt to lightships’ crews daytime moonlighting. Basketmaking then moved onto the island of Nantucket and transformed what was once a utilitarian object into a work of art.

Taking inspiration from the splint baskets made by local Native Americans, Nantucket lightship baskets were first made freeform without benefit of a mold but today molds are commonly used. The Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum has an impressive collection of baskets from the 1800s to contemporary examples. Its website notes that a Nantucket lightship basket today has several critical components, including weaving the basket with rattan (aka cane) on a mold and being made with a solid wooden bottom plate. Having a hinged top lid with a turned knob and a carved or scrimshaw decorative element (usually a whale, bird, seashell or other nautically themed object) adds to the value of these iconic baskets.

This Jose Reyes friendship basket from 1961 having a carved seagull is on display at the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum. Photo courtesy of Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum

Collectors have long been interested in Nantucket baskets and they are highly collectible. Rare forms are especially desirable such as the “lollipop” baskets. They are open form baskets with staves having round lollipop-shaped endings or heart-shaped endings such as this one and this one seen on the website of Nantucket’s Four Winds Craft Guild.

Early examples are particularly valuable as many have not stood the test of time. “Any 19th century Nantucket lightship basket that has its original paper label and is in somewhat good condition is highly prized,” says John Sylvia of Sylvia Antiques in Nantucket, which specializes in nautical antiques.

This Nantucket lightship basket with carved ebony whale finial by Reyes sold for $4,750 in May 2019 at Grogan & Company. Photo courtesy of Grogan & Company and LiveAuctioneers.

Among highly sought-after Nantucket basket makers are Jose Formoso Reyes (1902-1980), who learned his craft from third-generation basket maker Clinton Mitchell “Mitchy” Ray (1877-1956) and went on to himself teach many others. “Reyes’ most popular basket was the Nantucket friendship basket (akin to a pocketbook/purse),” Sylvia said. “Contemporaries of his in the 1950-1960s were Stephen Gibbs, Sherwin Boyer and Stanely Roop. They have always been collected but they made a lot less of them, so their names are not as popular as Reyes.”

A Jose Reyes Nantucket purse having a carved bone lighthouse on its lid with seagulls brought $3,900 in August 2018 at Americana Auctions. Photo courtesy of Americana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Any 19th century basket makers who worked on the lightships are very collected, he said. Some examples include Davis Hall, Andrew Sandsbury, Thomas James, Charles Sylvia, Oliver Coffin and Joseph Fisher. “Then, there is another group that learned from the crewman who made baskets on land and primarily for the tourists … Mitch Ray, A.D. Williams, Ferdinand Sylvaroma and Frederick Chadwick.” Ray learned (basketmaking) from his grandfather, Captain Charles B. Ray, a renowned basket maker. Ray had a prolific studio and signed his baskets with a paper label that read, “I was made in Nantucket, I’m strong and stout. Don’t lose me or burn me and I’ll never wear out. Made by Mitchell Ray.”

Ray would affix this paper label on the bottom of his baskets. Photo courtesy of Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum.

By the mid-1900s, makers were signing their baskets and the basket-making tradition continues today, with a new generation of makers learning and making baskets in workshops as a hobby or as a way to earn a living. While the look of a Nantucket lightship basket is immediately recognizable, forms and styles can vary slightly from lidded to open forms. Most are round or oval though a few makers create square baskets. Nesting sets of baskets are popular and baskets can range in size from 4 to 20 inches. Carrying handles are usually crafted from ash, oak or hickory.

The basket-making tradition is alive and well on Nantucket. This pocketbook-style basket by Michael Kane in 1983, who made baskets there for over 40 years, sold in 2010 for $2,500 at Louis J. Dianni LLC. Photo courtesy of Louis J. Dianni LLC and LiveAuctioneers.

“We have seen many changes in adornments, materials used and detail that goes into weaving a Nantucket basket,” according to Rafael Osona Auctions in Nantucket. The auctioneers have sold several rare baskets, including a heart-form open basket made in the last quarter of the 19th century, which sold for over $100,000.

Nantucket baskets have become inextricably linked with the island as a symbol of friendship. At one time, girls graduating from high school on Nantucket would receive a friendship basket, a form created by Reyes. “Reyes broke from tradition and called these friendship baskets because the basket symbolized a bond with Nantucket and was instantly recognized as a reminder of this special place,” according to the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum. Over the years, these baskets have been recognized as an art form and many visitors have taken their own remembrance of the island home in the form of a Nantucket basket.