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Scrimshaw depicting a woman and a man

Date: 19th century
Overall: 130 x 55 x 40 mm, 0.32 kg
Medium: Sperm whale tooth, ink
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Scrimshaw whale tooth
Object No: 00032482

User Terms

    The tooth depicts an engraving of a colonial man and an unflattering portrait of a woman. It is decorated with flower patterns on its side. Scrimshaw engravings provided sailors with a popular pastime at sea and were usually given as gifts to loved ones or made for personal use. However, some whalers are known to have sold their scrimshaw pieces when visiting ports. This tooth is suspected to have been sold to an Australian farming couple for a minimal amount.
    SignificanceThis tooth represents 19th century scrimshaw and is an example of portraits made by scrimshanders.
    HistoryAmerican scrimshaw can trace its roots back to the 19th century whaling industry and was a craft practiced by whale hunters with plenty of spare time on their hands. Using material from marine animals, scrimshanders carved utilitarian objects or engraved purely artistic pieces featuring images of ships, women, whale hunts or memories of home.

    The most popular and admired pieces of scrimshaw were carved on Sperm whale teeth. A tooth would be selected and sawn off for stability. It was then filed and sanded to a smooth surface. The basic design, often copied from books and magazine illustrations, would be scratched into the tooth and the engraved lines filled with ink, lamp black or other pigments. As work progressed more detail would be added to finish the design.

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