Nantucket Lightship Baskets have had a long and illustrious history beginning in the early 19th century on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Though wooden baskets have been in existence since before America was colonized by the British, Nantucket residents modified the original design by using different materials (such as rattan) and innovative designs, creating the Lightship Baskets that are sought after today
Another contributing factor to both the development of the baskets as well as their name was the Lightships (ships that act as lighthouses) that were stationed around the Nantucket shores. Specifically, the Nantucket South Shoals were a great concern to merchants and mariners because they were a notorious site for shipwrecks. Thus, in the mid 19th century, the first Lightship was stationed on site in order to prevent shipwrecks.
It was on the Lightships that basket-making flourished among the crewmen both on the boat and while on shore. Life aboard the lightship was monotonous and the crewmen were isolated and lonely, thus turning to basket making as a diverting and lucrative hobby. Though basket making on the South Shoal Lightship came to an end in the early 1890s, the Lightship Basket tradition continued among other Nantucket residents well into the 21st century.
Some of the more well-known weavers of the Lightship era were Captain Charles B. Ray (1798-1884), Captain Andrew J. Sandsbury (1830-1902), and William Appleton (1857-1918). Charles B. Ray was the first in his family to work on the New South Shoal Lightship and perhaps the most influential to the art of Nantucket basketry. During his career, he created over 200 baskets and is even credited with creating the first lidded basket, a design which would be later refined by José Formoso Reyes (1902-1980).
Captain Ray passed down the tradition of Lightship Baskets to three generations of Ray men. However, by the 1930s, only one Islander was producing Lightship baskets commercially, Clinton Mitchell Ray (1877-1956), a third generation descendent of Captain Charles Ray. Mitchell Ray learned the craft from his father, using the same skills and basket molds to create his own. He soon opened up a basket shop in Nantucket in order to keep the tradition alive. Consequently, he made a great number of baskets each year, nearing his grandfather’s proficiency. However, he was concerned that the tradition would die out with him as he was the only maker of Lightship Baskets on the island and had no children of his own to pass down the craft to.
Luckily, José Formoso Reyes, a young Philippine man and a newcomer to the island, became an apprentice to Mitchell Ray. Reyes had experience with the basket material, rattan, since he had learned how to gather, process, and weave with it as a young boy. Once in Nantucket, Reyes befriended Ray and learned the Lightship Basket weaving method from him. Reyes took his knowledge a step further and created the “purse-style basket” (otherwise known as a Friendship basket) which quickly became popular and revitalized the tradition of Lightship Baskets.
The New Britain Museum of American Art is proud to exhibit a collection of Lightship Baskets, both contemporary and traditional, in the Davis Gallery. Included along with the aformentioned artists are Nap Plank (b. 1955), Michael Kane (b. 1956), Tim Parsons (b. 1956), and many others. The show will be on view through January 23, 2011, so we invite you to come enjoy it.
What do you think of these baskets? Can you think of another art form that has been passed down generation to generation? What other art forms were born out of daily tools? Why did these crewmen make their baskets artistic instead of just functional?