Sperm Whale Tooth Prepared for Scrimshaw, 19th Century

This is an example of a whales tooth prepared for the art of scrimshaw. When a tooth is removed from the lower jaw of a sperm whale, its surface is rough and discolored, with ridges of varying depth along its lengtht. To prepare the tooth the artist scraped and sanded the surface until it was smooth—sometimes using sharkskin, which was strong and abrasive. A knife blade or other sharp instrument was used to engrave the picture into the tooth.
This blank tooth was shaped into a fine point at its upper end and highly polished, but it was never actually engraved with an image. A clue to the reason may be on the back, where a long crack runs almost the entire length of the tooth. The artist may have caused or noticed this crack late in the polishing process and didn’t want to risk working on a tooth that looked like it might break at any time. There are a few shorter cracks on the front as well; two are at the top of the tooth. The carver probably tried to sand them out, which would explain why the tooth is pointed at the top.
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.
It 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
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth, ivory (overall material)
overall: 6 in; 15.24 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Frederic A. Delano
Additional Media

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