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Uncarved sperm whale tooth

Date: 19th century
Overall: 30 x 122 mm
Medium: Whale tooth
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Whale tooth
Object No: 00000434

User Terms

    This Sperm whale tooth was collected onboard a whaling ship for the purpose of scrimshaw art. Scrimshaw was a recreational pastime for sailors during long sea voyages and involved carving designs on marine animal teeth or bones. Whale teeth were prepared by having the base sawn flat and the rough surface polished. This particular tooth was not prepared after collection and features no engravings.
    SignificanceThe tooth represents the 19th century boom in America's whaling industry and the use of Sperm whale teeth in scrimshaw 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'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 or walrus tusks and shell. Using jackknives, saws, homemade files and sharp sail needles, sailors would etch images of women, whaling scenes or other memories of home. The basic engravings were often copied from books and magazine illustrations. After being scratched into the tooth the engravings were filled with ink, lamp black or another 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: Uncarved sperm whale tooth

    Primary title: Uncarved sperm whale tooth

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