Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid-19th Century

On the obverse of this polished sperm whale tooth, a well-dressed woman is seated sidesaddle on a spirited, prancing horse. The woman wears a tight cap and a long heavy dress; the long calf-length cape over her shoulders has traces of blue pigment. In her left hand she holds the reins; with her right hand she holds or pats the horse's neck. The horse blanket or saddle has a red and black checkerboard pattern.
The reverse of the tooth is decorated with a more conventional image of a three-masted whaleship with all sails set on a light sea. An American flag with blue star ground and red stripes flying at the stern identifies the ship's nationality. One whaleboat is inverted on deck, and another swings from davits along the port side, ready to deploy over the side into the water. Some red coloration of the sea along the hull may indicate that a whale was just cut in, bloodying the water. In the left background sails another full-rigged ship, also flying a pigmented American flag. Above the ships are two overlapping hearts with a single arrow piercing them both, encircled by a vine with bright red berries. The drawing on this tooth was freehand rather than pinpricked through an existing image, indicating a talented and experienced artist. It is one of a pair with Cat. 58035-N, both by the same artist.
Normally, a scrimshaw artists’s etched lines were infilled with lampblack to contrast with the pale background color of the whalebone or ivory. In this case, however, the artist has added red and blue pigments to vary his palette. These added colors have faded with time, making them hard to see.
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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