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

<< >>
Mounted on a wooden stand, the bottom of this tooth is unfinished and unpolished to show the original ridged surface of a sperm whale tooth. On the main side is an elaborate floral and scroll engraving, that appears to be an embroidery pattern from one of the ladies magazines often used as a source for their scrimshaw illustrations by whalemen. With pinpricks in only one small area, the carving appears to be by an experienced and highly skilled engraver. The back side of the tooth is polished but undecorated.
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.
Currently not on view
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth, ivory (overall material)
overall: 11 cm x 4.3 cm; 4 5/16 in x 1 11/16 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Eleanor and Mabel (Marsh) Van Alstyne
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History


Add a comment about this object