Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

The obverse of this tooth has an image of a full rigged sailing ship stopped in the water, with most of the sails furled or rolled up. Alongside it is the carcass of a big whale, spinning around as the ship’s crew slice and hoist the ‘blanket pieces’ or strips of skin and body fat off the carcass in long sheets onto the deck. Once the long sheets are aboard, they’ll be cut into smaller pieces and tossed into a pot of boiling ‘blubber’ to render into whale oil. Above the scene in flowing script are the words “Ship Swift cutting a large whale.” There are a few registration pinholes within the image, but most of it is lightly drawn freehand. Engraved below the ship are the initials WHS, and in modern ink writing around the initials is written “149890. N.Y. M. Willis./U.S.A.” The number is the Smithsonian’s catalog number; the remainder is a notation by an earlier owner of the tooth. There is also a tag marked “39” stuck to the surface of the tooth in front of the ship’s bowsprit.
The reverse depicts a full-rigged ship plowing hard through heavy seas, with all sails flying. It is chasing a pair of whales lying on the water surface just ahead of its bow. The engraving is very fine but quite shallow on this side, and multiple pinholes indicate that a magazine drawing was laid over the polished tooth and pricked through for the image detail.
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
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth (overall material)
overall: 5 1/4 in x 1 13/16 in x 7/8 in; 13.335 cm x 4.60375 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 Merritt Willis
Additional Media

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