Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th Century

Description
Only one side of this little sperm whale tooth is carved, and the freehand carving is compressed into only a small area of the available polished surface. The other side is blank. On the left is a classic whaleboat with the standard six crew: four rowers, a boatsteerer at the stern and a harpooner at the bow. All of them are wearing hats. The harpooner holds up a harpoon and is ready to throw the dart into the whale. The scrimshaw artist has cleverly incorporated a crack in the tooth's surface into a line from the boat to the first harpoon, which is sticking out of a whale's back, for what is called a "Nantucket Sleigh Ride". This was slang for when a whale towed a whaleboat until it tired and rose to the water surface.
After the tow or sleigh ride, the whaleboat would row up to the exhausted whale and kill it. It was normal to use two harpoons to fasten to a whale, in case one was lost or twisted out by the whale's movements. The boat, crew and whale are in light black or brown pigment. By contrast, the water surface is pale blue, which is a rare pigment in the art of scrimshaw.
Location
Currently not on view
date made
19th century
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
Measurements
overall: 5 in x 1 3/4 in x 1 1/4 in; 12.7 cm x 4.445 cm x 3.175 cm
ID Number
1978.0052.35
accession number
1978.0052
catalog number
1978.52.35
Credit Line
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Wilbur J. Gould
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Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Art
Transportation
Scrimshaw
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center

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