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

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Description
One side of this sperm whale tooth is completely covered by a large bouquet of batchelors’ button flowers on three stems. The leaves and stems are black, but the large flower blossoms are pink. An open frame between the stems and blooms is inscribed “SOUVENIR.” The heavily pinpricked surface indicates that the artisan pasted an illustration on the surface of the polished tooth and then pushed a pin through to outline the features. The pink color originally may have been a deeper red that has faded with age. The back side of the tooth is polished but undecorated.
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.
Location
Currently not on view
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth, ivory (overall material)
Measurements
overall: 5 1/2 in x 2 1/2 in x 7/8 in; 13.97 cm x 6.35 cm x 2.2225 cm
ID Number
DL.374491
catalog number
374491
accession number
136263
Credit Line
Gift of Frederic A. Delano
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Art
Scrimshaw
Transportation
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center

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