Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Panbone, mid 19th Century

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This large panbone, or section of the back of a sperm whale’s jaw, served as the canvas for a whaleman’s freehand drawing on two levels. In the center of the upper level is a three-masted whaleship with painted gun ports along its sides. Merchant vessels often did this, to look like powerful warships from a distance and thus protect themselves from pirates or other predators. The ship’s vertical whaleboat davits are empty, and the ship is sailing towards its little fleet of four whaleboats in various stages of harpooning a pod of five whales. Four of the whales are ‘blowing,’ or exhaling through the blowholes on top of their heads. One of the whales already has two harpoons sticking out of its back and is towing a whaleboat on a ‘Nantucket sleigh ride.' Behind the ship on the left is an old-fashioned two-masted topsail schooner sailing in the opposite direction. The sea in the foreground is calm, and the scene is placed against a shoreline of low, rolling hills. Below is another pair of sailing ships: a two-masted square-rigged brig follows a brigantine with a square-rigged foremast and a fore-and-aft main. Although engraved by the same very talented artist, the two levels of illustrations do not appear to be related. Judging from the extremely detailed and technical rigs and sails of all the ships, the scrimshaw artist may have been a sailmaker or rigger.
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.
date made
mid 1800s
Physical Description
whale bone (overall material)
overall: 34 in x 13 in x 4 5/8 in; 86.36 cm x 33.02 cm x 11.7475 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Joseph B. Bloss
related event
The Development of the Industrial United States
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Industry & Manufacturing
Natural Resources
American Enterprise
American Enterprise
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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