Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

The obverse of this small sperm whale tooth has a shallow engraving of a young noblewoman directly gazing at the viewer. Her fashionable outfit and hairdo are accessorized by an intricate necklace, a brooch at the décolletage of her gown and what appears to be some sort of medal or order (Bath?) on her left breast. Her headband contains crenellated towers and her shoulders are covered with an elegant ermine shawl. On the reverse, a youth in a sailor outfit with a kite in his hand is gesturing to go outside to another youth seated on a bench inside a house. The seated youth has his hand up in a negative gesture. Unfortunately, the story that the artist of this tooth intended to tell is lost in time.
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
Object Name
tooth, whale
scrimshaw tooth, whale
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth (overall material)
overall: 5 in x 1 7/8 in x 7/8 in; 12.7 cm x 4.7625 cm x 2.2225 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession 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 Frederic A. Delano
Additional Media

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