Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th-20th Century

One side of this freehand engraved sperm whale tooth depicts a three-masted whaleship. All the masts, spars and rigging are carefully detailed, but no sails. Three whaleboats swing on the port side davits ready for deployment. Above is a banner with the ship name Janet and a date of 1856. In 1856, a whaling bark named Janet from Westport, MA was on a very successful whaling voyage in the Indian Ocean, bringing home 249 barrels of whale oil and 4,500 pounds of bone in 1858. Above the banner is an anchor with the initials "E.B."
On the other side is an eagle with spread wings and a laurel branch in its beak. In its talons is a fork-tongued snake. Above the bird is a banner marked "EDWARD BAKER PROVIDENCE", over which is an ornate metal vase containing palm fronds.
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 it 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.
Currently not on view
Object Name
scrimshaw - tooth
scrimshaw tooth, whale
date made
19th - 20th century
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 6 3/4 in x 4 in x 1 3/4 in; 17.145 cm x 10.16 cm x 4.445 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Cultures & Communities
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Wilbur J. Gould
Additional Media

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