News, Tips & Bargains : Lightship Baskets in the Limelight

At its height in the early 1800s, the whaling fleet that put out from Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, numbered 88 ships and roamed as far as Antarctica. But whaling declined after 1850 and the sudden loss of work spurred islanders to transform a traditional craft into a cottage industry that still thrives today. While waiting out the long days on watch aboard floating lighthouses called "lightships," industrious former sailers wove unusual baskets that they later sold in town.

Some of those first Nantucket "lightship baskets" are on display at the Fair Street Museum in a first-of-its-kind exhibition, "150 Years of Nantucket Lightship Baskets," sponsored by the Nantucket Historical Assn.

Made and sold only on Nantucket, a tiny island 30 miles southeast of Cape Cod, lightship baskets have become popular collectibles. Contemporary handmade baskets start at just under $400, but antiques have commanded thousands.

Traditional Nantucket lightship baskets are tightly woven of thin reed caning and shaped like a tub with a pair of oak handles. The lids are often decorated with scrimshaw, shells or maritime motifs.

The exhibit runs through Oct. 10 at the Fair Street Museum. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For information, contact the historical association, (508) 228-1894.

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