Lightship Baskets

Posted by Brette in Collecting | Travel Shopping
Nantucket lightship basket

Nantucket lightship basket

I love to travel, but I also love the thrill of the hunt while traveling. I like to bring home items that are handmade from the place I’m visiting, and failing that, at least something that reminds me of the locale.

Several years ago when we rented a cottage on Cape Cod, we took the ferry to Nantucket for the day. (We also went to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket won, hand’s down). I was in love from the moment the ferry neared the shoreline. Nantucket town is quaint with cobblestone streets and stern Yankee architecture. At the time we visited, there were some artisan shacks near the dock. We took a tour around the island and saw the cranberry bogs, the cute towns, and the lighthouse. We had only a few short hours to

Non-Nantucket basket

Non-Nantucket basket

enjoy the island, but in that brief time, it spoke to me. I’ll go back some day, but for now every summer I read Elin Hildebrand’s latest Nantucket chick lit novel to tide myself over.



I also have an authentic piece of Nantucket to keep my longing in check. I bought a lightship basket while there. A lightship was a ship that anchored over a shoal to warn other ships of the shipwreck danger. It was like a mobile lighthouse. Nantucket has many shoals, so lightships are a big part of her history. Lightship baskets were handmade baskets made by the sailors on these ships, as a way to pass the time, and to make some extra money. The era of the lightship basket was in the late 1800s (I would love to own an antique basket!). The baskets had a solid wooden base that was made ashore. The sailors wove the rattan baskets aboard the ships. In the 1900s, the baskets were made onshore and became a local island industry.

By the mid-1900s these baskets were used as purses (called friendship baskets and given to girls) and carved decorative pieces were added to the lids. They became a symbol of the island. Today you can still buy lightship baskets from craftsman on the island. And as you walk around Nantucket Town, you are likely to see women carrying them as purses. It has become a statement on the island and there’s something very kitschy about using a small basket as a purse. It also somehow just screams summer.

I bought one during our visit. The shop I bought it from allowed me to choose my basket shape and carved piece for the top. They customized the basket and we picked it up before we left the island. I don’t remember what it cost, but it was not inexpensive. The basket has a hinged lid, handle, and closure on the front. It is one of my most treasured souvenirs. I don’t use it as a purse though! It is displayed in a cabinet in our family room.

The second and third photos are of a similar basket that I couldn’t resist. I bought this basket at Plimouth Plantation a few days after we visited Nantucket. It’s not an authentic Nantucket basket, but I love it anyhow. It’s lined with cloth and the top is meant to look like scrimshaw. I display the two of them together.


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