Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid-19th Century

This medium-sized sperm whale tooth is polished and carved on two sides. On the obverse, an elaborately-dressed man and woman walk away from the viewer, beneath an arch of laurel leaves on a vine. The man wears a royal or military uniform, complete with sash and decorated hem. The woman is dressed in an elaborate gown, wears a string of pearls around her neck and has a crown atop her head. Her head, neck and arms are pinpricked, but the dots have not been connected to form an outline. The perimeters of both figures are heavily pinpricked, but not infilled.
The reverse of the tooth is decorated with the figure of a large long-haired woman, with an unhappy expression on her face. Unusually, her hair is not tied up or bound into a hairdo but hangs straight down her front and back. She too has an elaborate gown with ermine insets in the skirt, and she wears an ermine shawl or cape around her shoulders. Her arms, head and overall perimeter are heavily pinpricked but not completely infilled, like the couple on the front of the tooth.
Together, these figures appear to be operatic or theatrical, from the richness of their costumes and their expressive postures. The presence of the pinpricked figural outlines and details demonstrates that a picture was cut from a contemporary newspaper or magazine and pasted on the polished surface before the carving was executed. Most of the carver's hard work was finished; it is unclear why the tooth was never completed.
Currently not on view
Object Name
scrimshaw tooth, whale
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
overall: 6 in x 2 3/8 in x 1 1/2 in; 15.24 cm x 6.0325 cm x 3.81 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Cultures & Communities
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Work and Industry: Maritime
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Wilbur J. Gould
Additional Media

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