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Scrimshaw Snapshots


Imagine a man sailing out of New Bedford or Nantucket on a whaling ship in the early 1800s. He can expect the voyage to last for up to four years, and will perhaps find himself as far away from home as New Zealand or the Antarctic. The work is dangerous, dirty and smelly, but it’s in demand: whale oil is essential to the economic growth of the young United States. At night, and during long stretches of time between hunts, the whaler occupies his time carving discarded teeth, bones and baleen (the food filter inside the whale’s mouth) into decorative and practical items that he will give his loved ones when—or if—he returns home. His scrimshaw creations will provide future generations with valuable documentation of an era and a way of life.

“Many of the designs were modeled on whaling ships and whaling scenes,” says Christina Connett, curator of collections and exhibitions at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, which has the world’s largest collection of scrimshaw. “Other engravings were of Maori tattoos, illustrations, religious and patriotic themes, even pictures copied from fashion magazines.”

The making of scrimshaw began in the mid-1700s on whaling ships and continued until the moratorium on whaling starting with the 1972 United Nations Council on the Human Environment proposal. Scrimshaw’s peak coincided with that of the whaling industry, from about 1820 to 1840. Contemporary scrimshanders use resin, bone, abalone, horn, and legally obtained ivory for their creations.

Lynda Cain, vice president and head of the American Furniture, Folk & Decorative Arts department at Freeman’s in Philadelphia, explains how scrimshaw was crafted. “Tools used by scrimshanders were often jackknives or the stout needles meant for mending sails,” she says. “They worked with the teeth, bone and baleen, and also with the raw materials, including the coconut shells and ostrich or emu eggs they found in exotic ports.”

Once the enamel was scraped away, the engraved areas were rubbed with candle black, soot, tobacco juice, or ink to highlight the picture. The scenes provide vivid historical snapshots with their depictions of species of whale, names of the ships, and the process of pulling the whale in and rendering the blubber.

“Whalemen went out of their way to obtain the teeth of sperm whales,” says Michael P. Dyer, senior historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, “which is clear if you look at Incidents of a Whaling Voyage (Francis Allyn Olmsted’s 1841 book).” [pullquote]In Moby Dick, Melville described “lively sketches whales and whaling scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on sperm-whale teeth.”[/pullquote]

Dyer explains that this was sometimes for trade in Polynesia, where sperm-whale teeth had great value, and sometimes for sale back home. “It largely depended on the master of the vessel as to whether the crew was allowed, encouraged or actively discouraged from engaging in ‘scrimshonting,’” he adds. “This was a spare-time, off-watch activity, and much of it was done on the homeward leg of the voyage.”

Although an incised sperm whale’s tooth is the quintessential scrimshaw, there are many other types of objects that constitute this American folk art. “Scrimshanders made ornamental boxes, hand tools, canes, corset stays and yarn swifts,” Connett says. “A lot of our collection is not incised. Scrollwork and carving are very important. Some of my favorite pieces are pie crimpers that look like seahorses and monsters mixed together.” 

Few of the items were made for a commercial context. Most were domestic pieces—intimate, frequently quite elegant and intricate—created as souvenirs or mementos or gifts for loved ones. “As an American folk art, scrimshaw is the astonishingly creative output of an occupational group of self-taught artists,” says Cain. “There’s a charm to the pieces, a beauty to them—in the decoration on sperm-whale teeth especially—expressing not only the day-to-day labors at sea, but the patriotism, religion, politics, fashion and fancy of the time.” 

To really appreciate the diversity of scrimshaw, page through Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved: Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum by Stuart M. Frank, founder and director of the Scrimshaw Forensics Laboratory and senior curator emeritus at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The book’s 700 photographs and accompanying descriptions do justice to the variety, complexity and beauty of scrimshaw. They’re fascinating as both folk art and a historical record.

Today’s market for scrimshaw is highly regulated. The Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and various international conventions restrict the harvest and sale of ivory, with the goal of protecting vulnerable species from exploitation and extinction. For materials, there are rules (and exceptions) for different types, ages and origins. The laws can be confusing, frustrating and somewhat of a moving target. What’s important is to make sure you are in compliance with the regulations for your particular situation.

“We are all well aware of the current restrictions,” says Cain at Freeman’s. “Within that context, dating of an object is all-important. As the law stands now, if a tooth is determined to date from 1872 or older, a hundred years before the 1972 Act, it can be sold at auction. A firm provenance for the piece is essential. Some states have established their own restrictions, and scrimshawed whales’ teeth can be auctioned—but only to in-state buyers, and they can’t be shipped across state lines.”

That said, demand for scrimshaw is still brisk. “Most scrimshaw is anonymous,” Cain says, “but the most valuable items are examples that are signed or can be attributed to a maker.” 

Among those are teeth carved by Edward Burdett (1805-1833) and Frederick Myrick (1805-1862). Myrick is especially well known for “Susan’s teeth,” scrimshaw worked aboard the Nantucket whaler Susan. Melville limned the whale hunt in words; Myrick evokes it with his delicate carvings. A Myrick tooth sold for over $100,000 recently, according to Cain.

Human fist motif canes from the mid-19th century.

Human fist motif canes from the mid-19th century.

Although there have always been people who treasured and collected maritime art from the whaling era, a resurgence of interest in scrimshaw is often traced to the 1960s and John F. Kennedy. “He brought scrimshaw to the White House,” she says. “When JFK was photographed with carved whale teeth in his office, the interest and collecting greatly expanded.”

Keep scrimshaw out of direct sunlight, handle it with cotton gloves or freshly washed hands, and maintain a steady temperature and humidity. Consult an expert before using oil on it. With proper care, what Melville in Moby-Dick called “lively sketches of whales and whaling scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on sperm-whale teeth” will continue to tell their stories for centuries to come. 


New Bedford Whaling Museum

18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, Mass.

508.997.0046 | whalingmuseum.org

Nantucket Historical Association Whaling Museum

13 Broad St., Nantucket, Mass.



Providence Public Library

150 Empire St., Providence, R.I.

401.455.8000 | www.provlib.org

Peabody Essex Museum

East India Square, 161 Essex St.,

Salem, Mass.

978.745.9500 | pem.org

Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea

75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic, Conn.

860.572.0711 | www.mysticseaport.org


1808 Chestnut St., Philadelphia

215.563.9275 | freemansauction.com