Search the Collection
Advanced Search

Scrimshawed whale's tooth featuring a whaling ship and whales

Date: 19th century
Overall: 53 x 115 mm
Display Dimensions: 115 x 50 mm
Medium: Whale tooth
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Scrimshaw
Object No: 00000433

User Terms

    This scrimshawed whale's tooth design features a whaling ship and sperm whales. Scrimshaw is the art of etching or incising designs on the teeth of whales. It also refers to the use of both ivory and bone to make implements and/or decorative pieces used on ships or in the home.
    SignificanceScrimshandering proved to be an ideal occupation for sailors when active whaling was at a standstill, and is an integral part of the story of a sailor's life at sea.
    HistoryScrimshaw was originally a maritime craft that developed from the unique conditions onboard whaling ships in the early 19th century. No one knows for sure where the word originated, but it may come from the Dutch words 'scrim' meaning to etch and 'shorn' meaning to make. The earliest written reference is in an American ship's 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, walrus tusks and shell. Using jackknives, saws, homemade files and sharp sail needles, sailors often etched 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 and carved teeth and jaws that have received the most admiration. Teeth are generally considered classic scrimshaw because of their decoration, including whaling scenes, family members, religion, love, women and patriotism.

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

    Discuss this Object


    Please log in to add a comment.