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

Description
This tooth was poorly sanded and polished before it was etched, and the surface is rough and gray. At the bottom of one side, a large whaling ship under full sail proceeds from right to left. There are no crew or flags to identify the vessel; the only clue to its purpose is three whaleboats on davits on the deck on the left (port) side. The ship sails serenely on a finely engraved but featureless sea. Despite the unfinished surface, the quality of the engraving on the ship itself is extremely fine and well-proportioned, indicating an experienced and talented artist.
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: 6 3/4 in x 2 3/4 in x 1 3/4 in; 17.145 cm x 6.985 cm x 4.445 cm
ID Number
DL.024901
catalog number
024901
accession number
4331
Credit Line
Gift of J. H. Clark, of Newport, RI
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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