The unique basketry of the island of Nantucket is well known among collectors of Americana. Their history extends from the earliest makers of the 19th century to the current day rage for their adaptations as ladies' purses.
Certainly basket weaving can be considered one of the oldest surviving crafts. It has been practiced for centuries throughout the world by many ethnographic societies as well as members of technologically developed communities. But what sets Nantucket basketry apart from the rest of the genre? It appears that by the 1830's the unique wooden bottomed baskets we identify with Nantucket were being produced on the island. The No.1 Nantucket, New South Shoal Lightship was put into commission by the United States Lighthouse Service in 1854 and records do show that baskets resembling the recognizably distinctive form were made on the lightship soon after that date, hence the alternative designation, lightship baskets. The tenders of this floating lighthouse took to basketry to battle the monotony between chores at their lonely outpost. The uniqueness of Nantucket baskets is in large measure attributable to their wooden bases and structuring on wooden molds; the technique resulting in extremely sturdy, well formed products. Custom has it that the bottoms were brought aboard from ashore, having been turned from whatever scrap lumber was available. Staves made of oak, and rattan (cane) for the weavers were prepared on the ship, and then the actual weaving process begun. Carrying baskets generally sported swing and sometimes fixed handles while workbaskets had side handles or were occasionally handleless. Initially the baskets, in varied sizes, were probably carried home to wives, families and sweethearts for utilitarian purposes.
It was not long, however, before basketry developed as a local industry, and baskets made on the ship as well as on shore, found a ready market in the local stores. The craft was learned from one generation to the next. In fact, home economics training in 1900 for girls at the Coffin School including basket making. With the advent of the island as a resort they became appropriate souvenirs of the island.
Today, baskets of the 19th century are very scarce, but those of the first quarter of the 20th are more readily available. Occasionally they are labeled, but more often they are unidentified, their original paper labels lost or appearing in fragmentary form. But several makers did have trademark styles, and comparison with labeled baskets is often helpful in establishing attributions. It is also to be cautioned that names branded into handles or bottoms frequently indicate ownership. The deciding factor in determining a great basket,. given good condition and proportions, is that special, aged patina; a rich honey color which is a distinctive feature, acquired only with time.
Examples of older lidded baskets, while scarce, suggest the inspiration for the popular iconographic purses which have been marketed for the past 50 years.