Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

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The bottom of this very large sperm whale tooth is broken off. One side has a leopard stalking across the polished surface in a horizontal composition. The entire animal is decorated with deeply engraved spots, excepting a few parts, indicating that the scrimshander may not have finished his artwork.
The other side is very faintly engraved with a vertical picture of a shipboard game of chicken. A sailor in traditional outfit of striped pants, blouse, tie and hat with his arms folded across his chest is perched on the shoulders of a monk. The monk is complete with fringed haircut and a large cross around his neck. Another monk is running towards him with outstretched arms, with a sailor on his shoulders. One sailor is throwing some liquid at his opponents from a tall, narrow beaker. Behind the men is a sketchily rigged mast with no sails.
This odd freehand scene may be part of a Neptune ceremony, which was a diversion by crew or passengers of a ship when first crossing the Equator on a long voyage. Anyone who had not before crossed the line might have a visit from King Neptune and engage in hazing or gamesmanship of some sort to break up the monotony of a long sea voyage.
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
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth (overall material)
overall: 8 13/16 in; 22.352 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Frederic A. Delano
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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