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

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On the obverse of this large, highly polished sperm whale’s tooth is a large bust portrait of a young woman gazing pensively to the left. Likely unmarried on account of the absence of a wedding band on her left ring finger, she wears a long veil on her head that is gathered in her hands like a shawl. She holds a nosegay of clematis blooms in her hands, which are folded in her lap.
On the reverse is a finely drawn small whale ship under full sail on a calm sea towards the left. The left or port side has three whaleboats rigged on davits on deck. The hull of the ship is painted with fake gunports to appear armed from a distance.
There are very few pinpricks and they are very shallow in the tooth’s images, indicating an experienced carver etching mostly freehand. Both sides of the tooth are pierced with 4mm holes drilled at different heights. Later, they were filled in with white plaster. These holes probably served as attachment points for a stand to prop the tooth up so it could be seen from both sides.
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: 17.5 cm x 7.5 cm; 6 7/8 in x 2 15/16 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of J. H. Clark, of Newport, RI
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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