The Nantucket Basket

By Pamela Cole

The history of the Nantucket lighthouse basket is long and fascinating. The name originated with ‘Lighthouse’ boats that essentially served as floating lighthouses guiding other boats through dangerous Nantucket waters.

These boats usually were staffed with 10 men, some of whom were coopers, tradesmen who built wooden barrels, buckets and tubs. In their free time, they used their skills and Yankee ingenuity to craft baskets, probably from materials at hand in the boat or found locally. The first baskets were made on board ships until the early 20th century.

Three elements characterize a Nantucket lighthouse basket. It’s woven on a mold, the weaver uses rattan, also known as cane, and the basket has a solid wooden base. Today, copies are made as far away as the Orient, but the true Nantucket basket is better made, signed and sometimes dated by craftsmen who are proud of their work and acknowledge it with their signature.

It is thought that Jose Reyes helped to popularize the baskets in the 1940s when women began carrying everyday purses. The baskets were carried by Nantucket islanders as well as visitors who wanted a souvenir from their travels to Nantucket. Their popularity grew from there.

As with any other item of quality, the baskets are characterized by straight staves (the framework of the basket), neat or invisible joins where one piece was joined to another and good craftsmanship throughout. Typically, the craft of basket making was passed down from a master to his apprentice. Today, some craftsmen teach classes, instructing intrepid students how to create their own baskets. A well-made and cared-for basket can be used for many years.

    The Phoenix Mill auction on July 16, “Design and Designer: Interiors & Fashion,” features two lots of Nantucket baskets. The first, lot 8003, was crafted by Jose Reyes and is topped by a small bird in flight on the lid. It is thought that Reyes commissioned another Island craftsperson, Aletha Macy, to carve the bird. A ninth-generation craftsperson, Ms. Macy had a keen interest in ornithology and took special care in carving her birds. Birds in flight were her specialty. The mellow patina, fine craftsmanship and age make this piece of interest. Lot 8003A is equally interesting. Dated 1979, this basket is a perfect example of the continuing tradition and artistry of the Nantucket craft. The 1979 basket, paler in tone than lot 8003, exhibits all the hallmarks of the Lighthouse basket tradition. See these lots in our catalog.


    Whether you’re interested in a lovely purse or the Nantucket craft tradition, owning one of these baskets will be a joy.