What’s Inside A Nantucket Lightship Basket?
It was a normal weekday in late July at ESSE Purse Museum. In walks a bag that Thandi and I
couldn’t get our eyes off: a basket purse, shaped ever so cutely and looking like the perfect
combination of dainty yet sturdy. It was small. We could tell it was special…
The owner, Lydia Arnold, informed us that the beauty was a lightship basket, hailing from
Lightship baskets came about mid 19th Century when the crew on lightships had little to do
during the day and turned to basket weaving. The skill eventually made it to land, and the
tradition lives on today in Nantucket. There’s even a Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum that
aims to preserve and educate about the art form.
…Lydia’s basket was a gift from her mother on her 30th birthday, but at the time the waitlist for
the infamous Michael Kane to complete the bag was 5 years. Lydia, now owning the bag for
years, wears it every summer from Memorial Day to October 1st. When not in use, it’s a fixture
in her powder room—a true piece of history in a handbag.
We asked Lydia if she would be the subject for our reviving “ESSE Purse Project,” an anthology
of women’s purses and their contents. As Lydia opened her lightship bag, I saw her name affixed
to the inside top flap. She said the ornamental nameplate was a quarterboard. The tradition is that
when she passes down the bag, most likely to a daughter, her name will move up a slot and the
new owner’s name will go in its place.
As she took out each item from her purse I learned a little more about Lydia. She’s an attorney.
She always keeps a little notebook and pen for her thoughts. The pen was given to her by her
best friend. She likes chocolate (she wanted to pull the Hershey Kisses wrapper out of the photo,
but I insisted it stay). She has two daughters. One is a ballerina (the coffee token was from the
hotel in Chicago when she was dropping off her daughter at a ballet intensive). Lydia loves
Splenda. And Wonder Woman. She had toured ESSE Purse Museum (of course!) and been to
Sweet Home Furnishings down the street earlier in the day. What did she buy, I asked. A globe! Most
fittingly, she had a pair of replacement keys for her family’s Nantucket home.
A fun finale for this purse project was seeing a penny attached to the bottom of the lightship bag
from the year it was made, 2005. Twelve years later Lydia is still carrying the bag, its
traditions, and the items that make up who she is. We are so happy she blessed us with her
bubbly presence, knowledge, and story here at ESSE Purse Museum!