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Whale tooth depicting whaling scene and mermaid

Date: 19th Century
Overall: 143 x 50 mm, 0.2 kg
Medium: Sperm whale tooth, ink
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift funds
Object Name: Scrimshaw
Object No: 00009279

User Terms

    This tooth is engraved with a close up view of a Sperm whale hunt and shows the animal moments before it is harpooned. On the reverse side is an engraving of a winking mermaid encircled by a rope. Many scrimshanders found it difficult to depict human forms over ships and their engravings of people can appear naive and crude, as in the case of this image of a mermaid.
    SignificanceThis tooth represents how scrimshanders portrayed maritime scenes more frequently and in greater detail than images of people. It is a fine example of the classis scrimshaw scene of a whale hunt.
    HistoryScrimshaw was originally a maritime folk art that developed from unique conditions encountered onboard whaling ships in the early 19th century. It is unknown where the term originated, but it comes from the Dutch words 'scrim' meaning to etch and 'shorn' meaning to make. Scrimshaw is produced by engraving, carving, inlaying or assembling bone from marine mammals, such as whale bone, teeth and baleen, walrus tusks and shell. Artists used jackknives, saws, homemade files and sharp sail needles to etch images of women, whaling scenes or other memories of home.

    For a period of roughly 100 years whalers produced a wide variety of scrimshaw, but it is the engraved teeth and jaws that receive the most attention. Teeth are generally considered classic scrimshaw because of their decoration, including whaling scenes, family members, religion, love, women and patriotism.

    Teeth would be selected and sawn off for stability, filed and sanded to a smooth surface. The basic design, often copied from books and magazine illustrations, would then be scratched into the tooth and the engraved lines filled with ink, lamp black, or other pigment. As work progressed more detail would be added to finish the design.
    Additional Titles

    Primary title: Scrimshaw tooth depicting whaling scene and winking mermaid

    Web title: Whale tooth depicting whaling scene and mermaid

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