The first time I held a Nantucket Lightship basket in my hands was as a college student in 1975, while visiting the Island for the first time on a December weekend. A college classmate and native Nantucketer wanted to show me his childhood home where, on a spit of sand floating miles out on the Atlantic Ocean, he was raised until he was ten years old.
Driving south on I-95 , we made the trip from New Hampshire to Hyannis, Steely Dan in the tape deck, in a little more than four hours. Just past that winter’s dusk, we maneuvered the car onto the back of a brand new addition to the Steamship Authority fleet called, appropriately, The Nantucket.
The three-hour sail after a four-hour drive called for food, so we locked the car and climbed to the top deck of the ship where the snack bar was in full swing. I ordered a cup of thick quahog chowder and watched the passengers slide into red vinyl banquets with their supper, books and newspapers.
Carefully sipping the hot soup, I watched two women, one dressed in a handsome green tweed jacket and the other in a cream colored Irish knit sweater, place their belongings onto the Formica table between them as they settled into their seats. They carried woven baskets, with wood handles that snugged around their forearms. The baskets had lids with some sort of decoration on top. Once settled, the woman in the sweater flipped hers open and deposited a wallet, and I realized it must be her purse.
Hoisting my own well-worn canvas carry-all onto my shoulder, I passed their table and glancing sidelong, took a closer look. The carved decoration on one lid looked like a cluster of white shells, and on the other was a four inch whale on its side. So cool, I thought making a mental note to ask my friend if he knew about them.
Hours later, the car bumped off the ferry dock and onto the cobblestoned streets of Nantucket. It was late, and I remember looking out of the car window into absolute darkness, providing millions of stars with a near perfect black-out for their brilliance. There wasn’t any commercial lighting within thirty nautical miles to dim their glow.
In the morning, dressed in L.L. Bean boots and a cozy down parka, I met a cold, foggy Nantucket that if you squint, looked pretty close to what it still looks like, almost forty years later –cobbled streets, old clapboard houses listing in the wind, and wild, raw coastlines.
The Main Street shops, however, were less about tee-shirts then they are now, and more about utilitarian items. Lobster traps, liquor, clam rakes, two drug stores side-by-side, Nantucket Red pants made from sturdy duck cloth displayed in a window, and brass sextants from Tonkin’s were what the locals and visitors were shopping for.
Eventually, I found the purses I’d seen on the boat the night before at Murray’s Toggery Shop at the top of Main Street.
Basket making was first taught to Nantucket settlers by the native Indian population in 1695. The outcome was a stiff and wooden carrier, liable to break and split in a few years' time. The worker-bee baskets I saw at Murray’s looked as if you could run a car over them and they would survive, fully intact.
These Lightship purses, their local name, had roots deep in the 1700’s when sailors, setting out from Nantucket on yearlong whaling expeditions, needed a hobby to pass the time. They discovered that long rattan vines from the Far East could be soaked for pliability and easily woven into pretty totes to bring back as gifts to their wives and girlfriends at the end of their long journey. In the 1830’s, lids were added to the baskets by a creative Captain on duty aboard a Nantucket Lightship vessel, and thus was born the Nantucket Lightship basket.
That basketry is an island tradition still passed on through generations of Nantucketers. Now they are gussied up with ivory scrim on the tops, ivory toggles, paintings on the underside of the lids, tiny ivory quarter boards identifying the owner, and always a penny inside for good luck.
These creations were the robust glamour girls of the trade, and I had to have one. I wanted to start my own tradition in this extraordinary place and how better than to mark my first visit with a basket of my own. My friend plucked one off of the shelves and handed it to me saying “Squeeze it”.
I held the basket with cold hands and gingerly squeezed. I heard something like scrunching cellophane. Horrified, I thought I’d broken it.
“Hear it crack? That’s how you know it’s a good one.”
Smiling broadly, as if he had just given me the punch line of a joke, he explained the crunch comes from the materials, the ash or oak and cane, used in the baskets, the “secret ingredients” used to identify a true Nantucket- made basket.
Although my affinity was immediate, the price tag forced me to place it carefully back on the shelf.
Seeing my disappointment, my friend said “Come on. I’ll take you to a place and show you some nice ones, not too expensive.”
We drove through a maze of narrow streets flanked by 18th and 19th century New England homes with front steps that led onto ancient bumpy brick sidewalks, to a building just outside of town -- one of the best kept secrets for basket buying on Island in the 70’s -- a now defunct utilities company.
“I see these nice baskets when I come in to pay my bill,” my friend explained, as we got out of his car. “They aren’t purses, but if you can do without the lid, they are great for toting stuff.”
Inside, on a shelf behind the receptionist’s desk, were seven perfectly round woven baskets ranging in size from three to ten inches in diameter, made by a local crafter named Ed Maloney who, in his retirement, kept himself busy weaving. I pointed to a size that seemed reasonable, and when it passed into my hands, I gave it a little squeeze and sure enough, heard the crackle. I bought two baskets on the spot, one four inch and one five inch, for the grand total of about $80.00. I gave one to my parents that Christmas, but the other was for me; the start of a collection that is still on-going.
The following summer, I met the baskets’ creator, Ed. Happy to find me a fervent buyer, he also appreciated my enthusiasm for the artistry, and the history associated with them. Each winter , I’d call Ed and place my order -- a tray, an oval basket, or reserve whatever he was working on at the time. The following summer, I’d claim it from the receptionist at the utilities company. Sometimes during our phone calls, Ed would veer onto other subjects-- Island history, friendly gossip, local news, changes in the landscape. Ed wove baskets for me, but he also wove the island tighter into my life. The more I bought, the more I felt connected to Nantucket which I would otherwise only get to know in week long, yearly snippet of vacation time.
"Will you make me a purse, Ed?” I called to ask him one fall.
“Sure, but it will take me some time. There is a lot more to making a pocketbook than just the round, open baskets.”
“In the meantime,” he added, “think about what kind of decoration you what on the lid and Nancy Chase, our local Shimshaw artist, will carve it for you.”
But I never got the purse. Ed died unexpectedly, soon after that phone call. I wrote his widow to express my sorrow, but also to see if maybe there was a purse he had left finished, waiting for me on his craft table. No purse, she said, and anything else he made and left behind, would stay in the family, on Nantucket.
I sadly moved on to find other local weavers and that is how I met Henry Heyser. Henry wove with the thinnest, finest rattan he could cut, and his baskets were exquisite. He was as prolific as Ed, and between the two weavers, I own about 30 of their baskets alone. They are handsomely darkened with age and displayed in the top half of an 18th century linen press in my New Jersey kitchen. This formidable piece of furniture, standing three and a half feet wide, two feet deep and seven feet tall ,was bought on a whim, during a wind-whipped afternoon on Nantucket. My husband and I loved its honey colored pine exterior, worn smooth by a centuries worth of hands. We shipped it back to New Jersey, praying it would fit through the front door of our house. For more than 17 years, it remains a constant reminder of my love for things old and everlasting.
At Christmas time, I open the glass doors of the cabinet, stick bits of holly and pine between the baskets and show off the three shelves crammed with “single egg “ (just large enough to fit one chicken egg) and “double egg” (big enough for two) , round ones in a multitude of diameters, oval trays for carrying drinks (Ed’s), bud vases concealing olive jars as liners to hold flowers, salt sellers with tiny bone spoons (Henry’s) and my “Henry Favorites”: a miniature nest of four baskets, the smallest, barely big enough for a fall cranberry, the largest, a pearl onion.
When I bought the tiny set, I noticed he had just finished a beautiful purse with an ebony placket on the lid, waiting for some scrim. “How much, Henry?” I asked. He told me the price, and I sighed. Maybe next year. I think he wanted about $120.00 for it back in 1985, but it was still too much money to spend for this single, working girl that stood at his craft table and drooled over the basket.
“Don’t wait too long,” he said. “I’m slowing down.”
And then he died, not long after that visit. If I pull a basket from my cabinet today, I can tell you about the conversation I had with Henry before I bought it—the exact story he told me about some aspect of his life on Nantucket—filling the basket and me, to the brim with more Nantucket history, deepening my island connection with every story. When Henry walked down Main Street for his daily constitution, he always took a pocketful of his miniatures to hand out to children and adults alike, whether he knew them or not.
I was devastated to lose Henry, as both a friend and master craftsmen. He and Ed made it possible for me to buy several baskets each year, and to give them away as Christmas gifts and still meet the rent on my first apartment in Manhattan. Imagine.
I still didn’t have a purse.
Soon after Henry’s death, I stopped collecting baskets. The thought of finding and losing another friend was too much. Anyway, Nantucket baskets had been “discovered” by the new and affluent tourists who had subsequently discovered Nantucket, and basket prices skyrocketed, especially for the old ones. Today, antique Nantucket baskets by acclaimed artists Reyes, Sales and Ray, sell at auction for thousands of dollars, especially the purses.
My summers on Nantucket continued, but my collection took a new turn.
Part II of Nantucket Dream Weaving will appear next week. Ryder Ziebarth is a free-lance writer living in Bedminster, NJ and Nantucket.