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Sperm whale tooth

Date: 19th Century
Overall: 135 x 57 mm, 0.4 kg
Medium: Whale tooth
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Whale tooth
Object No: 00000738

User Terms

    This Sperm whale tooth has been polished and the base sawn flat in preparation for scrimshaw. Scrimshaw was originally a maritime folk art that involved carving, etching and engraving animal materials with images. Although this tooth was prepared for scrimshaw it has not been engraved with any decoration.
    SignificanceThis tooth represents the tradition of scrimshaw and the importance of Sperm whale teeth to the folk art.

    HistoryScrimshaw was originally a maritime craft that developed from the unique conditions encountered onboard whaling ships in the early 19th century. No one knows for sure where the term originated but it comes from the Dutch words 'scrim' meaning to etch and 'shorn' meaning to make. The earliest written reference is in an American ship log dated 20 May 1826. There is also a reference to 'skrim shunder articles' in Herman Melville's Moby Dick in 1851.

    Scrimshaw is produced by engraving, carving, inlaying or assembling bone from marine mammals, such as whale bone, teeth and baleen or walrus tusks and shell. Using jackknives, saws, homemade files or sharp sail needles, sailors would etch images of women, whaling scenes or other memories of home.

    A Sperm whale tooth would be selected and sawn off for stability. It was then filed and sanded to a smooth surface. The basic scrimshaw 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 pigment. As the work progressed more detail would be added to finish the design.

    The Sperm whale is the largest of the toothed whales and is recognised by its large squared-off head. It frequents all the worlds’ oceans and can dive to depths of 1000 metres in search of squid and fish. These whales were a valuable source of ambergris (a waxy substance used in perfumes), teeth for scrimshaw and most importantly oil used in candles and fuels. During the 18th and 19th century whalers drastically impacted the number of Sperm whales and despite their subsequent recovery, they are currently listed as endangered.
    Additional Titles

    Web title: Sperm whale tooth

    Primary title: Sperm whale tooth

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