Nantucket Lightship Baskets
Today we want to highlight one of the most iconic objects in the NHA’s decorative-arts collection: the lightship basket. 

Enjoy a documentary on how they are crafted and see how the many forms of this art is displayed in homes today.


Also, don’t forget to join us starting on July 30. Purchase your ticket today!
Weaving Nantucket's Past into Its Future
The story of basket making on Nantucket is told beautifully through the eyes of Nantucket’s 21st-century basket makers and crafts people. This brief documentary, generously loaned to the NHA courtesy of the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum , was written and produced by John Stanton and filmed and edited by Dan Driscoll.
Meet the Collection
Lightship basket nest, circa 1870. James Wyer (1816–99). Cane, birch, brass. 6¾” H x 3½” Dia (smallest basket) 14¼” H x 12" Dia (largest basket), Nest of seven open round lightship baskets.
The Nantucket Historical Association is fortunate to have wonderful Nantucket baskets which, together with those of the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum , provide a comprehensive view of the history of this craft so specific to our island.

Baskets were made on Nantucket, of course, long before the English incursion in 1659. For centuries or longer, indigenous people had worked splints of local hardwoods into sturdy baskets to transport and store food and goods.

Early English arrivals learned from the people of the island and also developed new methods, incorporating cane or rattan imported from Asia.

Lightships, those floating lighthouses commissioned by the state of Massachusetts to mark dangerous shoals in Nantucket Sound and environs in the mid-19th century, meant men with skills such as coopering and carpentry had time on their hands. During the day when the ships were idle, they developed basketry as a sideline. By 1900, it was taking so much focus that the state forbade “moonlighting” and basketmaking had to move shoreside.

We have in our collection works by those early shipboard basket makers and work by their shoreside heirs and apprentices. The stunning nest of baskets that marks the end of our Timeline on the ground floor of Gosnell Hall was made by one of the last whalers of Nantucket , James Wyer. He began life as a cooper (barrel maker) on the whaleship Nantucket, earning his captain’s papers before becoming one of the pre-eminent basket makers on the island. The relationship to coopering can be seen in the “plate” with grooved edge that forms the base of the basket and the “staves” that rise vertically from the plate to the rim, often made of hardwood, usually oak, in the early days. The staves were formed around a cylindrical or oval mold, giving shape and structure to the final product.
Another early basket in our collection is by Charles B. Ray, who sits at the top of a long lineage of basket makers. This round, covered basket is his work, and shows the original form of covered “market basket," popular in the 19th century. The form died out by about 1920.

In the 1940s a Filipino basket maker named Jose Formoso Reyes arrived on island and tried his hand at the local form. As he had in the Philippines, he initially wove baskets freehand, without a mold. The softer profile and re-introduction of the cover were not immediately popular, so he took up molding his baskets. Still they found no market until scrimshander Charlie Sayle purchased one and mounted his own carving of a whale on the top. Thus was the final form of the “Friendship basket” born, a marriage of two distinctive art forms of distinctly Nantucket origin, scrimshaw and basketry. Nantucket women had found their purses, and the tradition of Nantucket basketry remains strong on the island, drawing collectors and fans from around the world.

Above right: Covered lightship basket – inscribed “J.B. Folger”, circa 1865. Charles B. Ray, (1798 – 1884). 8 ¼” H; 12½” Diam. Gift of Miss Louise Folger Paige. Round covered lightship basket with swing handle. Inset hinged lid with central scored carved medallion. Oak staves. Handle plaque is made of silver.
Oval Lightship Basket Purse, circa 1948. Jose Formoso Reyes (1902-1980). Cane, wood, brass. 6 1/2" x 9" x 4 1/2". Gift of Elizabeth Reyes. Oval lightship basket purse with hinged lid. Cane-wrapped swing handle attached to lid. Signed on bottom. Fastening staple is detached, inside basket. Inscribed on bottom “Made in Nantucket / Jose Formoso Reyes” with an outline map of island.

According to donor, this is Reyes's first basket with a cover
Oval Lightship Basket Purse – Whales, 1957. Jose Formoso Reyes (1902-1980), Aletha Macy (1901-1971). Cane, rattan, walnut, ivory, brass. 6 1/2" x 11 1/2" x 8 1/2". Bequest of Eleanor Ham. Oval lightship basket purse with swing handle and hinged lid. Walnut lid plaque with four ivory whales. Ivory loop and peg closure at front. Signed on bottom “Made in / Nantucket / Jose Formoso Reyes / 1957” with an outline map of Nantucket.
Modern Take on Design: Local Designers
Provided by Kean University, Michael Graves College,
Interior Design Students
Trudy Dujardin Design- examples of
residential interior design in which
lightship baskets are used as a centerpiece
in a space while also serving a function.

“The baskets I love are Nantucket
Lightship baskets, crafted by the
calloused hands of sailors,
sea-toughened men whiling away wet and
salt-sprayed hours on a ship that rolled
and dipped with the pitch of the ocean
beneath it. The baskets that survive are
precious now, perhaps all the more so
because once they were not.”
Carolyn Thayer Interiors incorporates the look and style of lightship baskets in her design.
Donna Elle Designs includes the lightship baskets by incorporating the style and technique of the baskets in her decorative pieces.
Jose Formoso Reyes (1902-1980)
Jose Formoso Reyes (1902 - 1980), iconic lightship basket maker, talks about his life and experiences. Born in the Philippines, he was educated in the United States, eventually receiving a M.Ed. from Harvard University. He automatically received his U.S. citizenship in 1947 after his discharge from the U.S. Army with a rank of Captain. That year he was invited to vacation on Nantucket and never left.

After a number of odd jobs on Nantucket, Reyes was drawn to basket making applying the weaving skills he learned in the Philippines. Befriended by basket-making legend Mitchy Ray, Reyes' new career was launched. In 1948, he created the now sought-after "friendship basket" pocketbook and became well known for his innovative style and unique designs. It's estimated that in his lifetime, he made over 5,000 baskets. Today, a Jose Reyes basket is a valuable and prized possession.

This interview was conducted by Dror Kahn in 1975 for the NHA.
Historic Nantucket
Spring 1994, Vol. 43, No.1
Featuring “The Last of the Old-Time Basketmakers: Clinton Mitchell “Mitchy” Ray,” by David H. Wood (p. 72)

The story of Mitchy Ray (1877-1956), one of the most beloved and prolific Nantucket basket makers, is told by David Wood (1923-2008), an avid collector of Nantucket lightship baskets and supporter of the NHA and the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum.

Ideas for Interior Design and
Decorative Applications
Provided by Kean University, Michael Graves College,
Interior Design Students
Thank you to our Kean University students for their “modern take” research.
1800 House Workshop
Minature Nantucket Baskets with Nap Plank
If you have ever admired the precision of miniature lightship baskets, don’t miss this opportunity to work with Nap Plank, Nantucket’s master miniature basket maker! In this socially-distanced, in-person workshop, learn to make the staves, weave, and finish a miniature beauty.
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