Scrimshaw Sperm Whale’s Tooth, Mid-19th Century

Description
Nearly every spot on this small sperm whale tooth is decorated. The center of the main side contains a generic US warship in the center, with a swallowtail pennant on the foremast, a homeward bound pennant on the main mast and a big American flag off the stern. Above it floats a thistle; below is a crosshatch basket of flowers. Vines connect the edges of the tooth to the other side, the bottom of which is etched with an American eagle shield with thistles in its beak and crossed American flags in its talons. Above it floats a heart with a star in the middle. Three arrows and a horn pierce it through the middle, and above floats another vine. On the final edge is a head-on view of a ship with studding sails flying. It appears to be an alternate view of the ship on the other side of the tooth, judging from its visible flags. Around the base of the tooth, a sharp dentil molding draws all the images together into one composition.
Scrimshaw began in the late 18th or early 19th century as the art of carving whale bone and ivory aboard whale ships. The crew on whalers had plenty of leisure time between sighting and chasing whales, and the hard parts of whales were readily available on voyages that could last up to four years.
In its simplest form, a tooth was removed from the lower jaw of a sperm whale and the surface was prepared by scraping and sanding until it was smooth. The easiest way to begin an etching was to smooth a print over the tooth, prick the outline of the image with a needle and then “connect-the-dots” once the paper was removed. This allowed even unskilled craftsmen to create fine carvings. Some sailors were skilled enough to etch their drawings freehand. After the lines were finished, they were filled in with lamp black or sometimes colored pigments.
Scrimshaw could be decorative, like simple sperm whale teeth, or they could be useful, as in ivory napkin rings, corset busks (stiffeners), swifts for winding yarn or pie crimpers. The sailor’s hand-carved scrimshaw was then given to loved ones back on shore as souvenirs of the hard and lonely life aboard long and dangerous voyages.
Location
Currently not on view
Object Name
tooth, whale
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth, ivory (overall material)
Measurements
overall: 5 1/4 in x 2 in; 13.335 cm x 5.08 cm
ID Number
TR*67.723
accession number
248268
catalog number
67.723
subject
Scrimshaw
Art
Cultures & Communities
Transportation
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Scrimshaw
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Fielding Pope Meigs
Additional Media

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