The highly prized, handmade, Nantucket lightship basket
I was made on Nantucket,m I'm strong and I'm stout,m Don't lose me or burn mem And I'll never wear out.m
What kind of basket inspired craftsman Mitchell Ray to compose a ditty like the above? What kind of basket commands prices that rival those of gold jewelry? what kind of basket has a history bound up in the days of whalers and lonely lightships? And, most notable of all, what kind of basket instantly identifies its carrier as a frequenter of a quaint and scrubby little island off the coast of southern Massachusetts?
Ask anyone on Nantucket.
They'll tell you it's the same kind of basket that can be seen swinging on the arms of every other woman strolling down the cobblestoned main street of Nantucket town: the famous and highly prized Nantucket lightship basket.
The baskets that are sold in the island's posh craft shops are most often sold as purses -- they are usually round or oval and have handles and lids. It's what's on top of the lids that determines the price. A basket topped with a plain wooden disc or one adorned with a discreet ivory whale or seagull may sell for about $300, one with an elaborate piece of scrimshaw could fetch a price of over $1,000.
If that seems like a lot to pay for a basket, even one that functions as a purse, their makers will argue that it's not so much for something that takes 40 hours to make and is likely to increase in value. And, of course, the baskets never were cheap: back in 1880 tourists had to pay $2.50 for them, the equivalent of a man's weekly wage.
The baskets are viewed by many as investment material, a fact I quickly became aware of when I walked into Bill Sevren's basket shop on Old South Wharf. A man and his two daughters, ages approximately 9 and 10, were busy studying the scrimshaw and ivory topped purses, most selling for around $500, in the display case.
"I should probably buy you one now, and let you grow into them," their father told them. "They'll be worth a lot more by the time you grow up."
Bill Sevrens knows something about how the prices have risen over the years -- he's been making baskets on and off since 1921. "I was taught by Mitchell Ray, the last of the old-time basket makers," he told me. "There's never been much documentation on how they're made, it's always been handed down. Ray learned from his father and his grandfather. I've got two young people now making them with me, and they'll be able to carry the business on."
Mr. Sevrens prides himself on making baskets that truly deserve the name "lightship" basket -- they are patterned after those actually made on board the South Shoal Lightship, a vessel moored off the rocky Nantucket coast during the last century to warn ships away from the treacherous shoals. Sailors, faced with six month assignments aboard the ship with nothing to do but clean the lamps and keep watch, passed the time by weaving their special sort of baskets.
Unlike the free-form baskets that characterize both Indian and African baskets, lightship baskets are woven around molds, a practice that gives a weave of extraordinary consistency and precision. Because their staves and bottoms are cut and carved from wood, usually hickory or oak, they may be the sturdiest baskets ever developed.
Bill Sevrens prides himself on using green oak that strengthens with the age of the basket, something, he says, the legion of young craftsmen taking up the trade don't usually do. Around the oak staves he weaves rattan strips imported from the Phillipines.
While handbags are the most common among Nantucket baskets today, those baskets woven aboard the lightship were traditional open baskets, either round or oval. Because storage space in most old Nantucket homes was at a premium, baskets such as these were made and sold in successive sizes that could be stacked. Such "nests" of baskets are among the most highly prized, a fine antique set recently fetched $4,000.
"The open baskets are my own particular favorite," says Mr. Sevrens. Open baskets, steadily growing in popularity, account for about one-third of his business. A small round one sells for $80.
Much of the current popularity of Nantucket baskets, especially the handbags, can be attributed not to native Nantucketers like Bill Sevrens, but to Phillipine-born Jose Reyes who came to the island during the 1940s and took up the craft at the urging of Mitchell Ray. It was he who began making the handbags on a large scale, adding ivory and scrimshaw ornaments to the wooden tops and innovating touches such as ivory latches and pins and dowels of ivory to the handles.
It is not difficult to distinguish a basket made by Jose Reyes from one made by Mitchell Ray or Bill Sevrens. Basketmakers from the lightship sailors on have added their own trademarks. Reyes baskets are known by a map of Nantucket on the bottom, Ray baskets by a series of concentric circles and often by the above quoted verse as well. Bill Sevrens puts a new penny in the bottom of each of his which also serves a way of dating the basket as well.
And if what Mitchell Ray's wrote of the near indestructibility of Nantucket baskets is true, that may be useful to those who own a Sevrens basket several hundred years hence.