Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid-19th Century

This sperm whale tooth has an especially grisly scene etched on its surface. On the obverse, a whaleship lies dead in the water as the crew cuts in a whale carcass alongside. Red pigment in the water represents blood, as the crew haul onto the deck of the ship a blanket piece, or long strip of flesh and blubber. Once on deck, the blanket piece will be cut into smaller pieces of fat and skin and then tossed into a boiling trypot to melt it down into oil. Below in the foreground is a whaleboat with six crewmen; the harpooner in the bow has an iron in his hands ready to dart a whale on the surface of the water ahead. But the whale is already attached to the whaleboat with a line, so the harpooner is actually preparing a second dart to ensure that the whale does not sound or dive deep and get free. However, the second harpoon is unnecessary, for the whale is spouting red from its blowhole. This indicates that it's mortally wounded in the quick or neck arteries, and that soon it will drown in its own blood.
The reverse has an image of two intertwined hearts pierced with an arrow in a leafy vine, just like the companion tooth Cat. 58037-N by the same artist. Below the hearts, this tooth has an American eagle over a shield with red stripes holding an olive branch in one talon and six arrows in the other.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
overall: 5 in x 2 in; 12.7 cm x 5.08 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Cultures & Communities
See more items in
Armed Forces History: Armed Forces History, Naval
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Additional Media

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