Scrimshaw Sperm Whale’s Tooth

This carved sperm whale tooth is only engraved on one side, but it has an unusual subject. Instead of the more common full-rigged sailing ship, this tooth depicts a steamboat in profile moving from left to right. Below the vessel is engraved the legend “STEAMER RIGHT ARM”, which identifies the vessel as the wrecking tugboat RIGHT ARM. Measuring 135 ft. in length by 26.5 ft. beam (width), the ship was purpose built in New England in the early 1890s as a wrecker, or salvage vessel. These uncommon vessels helped to refloat grounded or stranded ships, or recovered useful parts from a ship that was wrecked. The forward deckhouse contained a powerful steam windlass and several tons of 2-in. chain, and the pumps were so strong that the ship could pump coal--as well as water--from damaged ships. The RIGHT ARM had the capability to support divers as well, with dive gear, air compressors and special equipment.
The RIGHT ARM is best known as the salvage ship for the infamous wreck of the American warship USS MAINE in Havana harbor, Cuba, an early event in the Spanish-American War. The RIGHT ARM recovered some of the MAINE’s artillery; the ship’s safe containing ca. $25,000; valuable chalices from the chaplain’s stateroom, and sailors’ bodies from the colossal explosion on 15 February 1898 that sank the warship.
Although this tooth was not carved by a whaler during the classical Age of Sail, it still represents the latter-day art of scrimshaw through its style, material and treatment.
Currently not on view
Object Name
tooth, whale
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
overall: 7 in x 2 1/2 in x 1 in; 17.78 cm x 6.35 cm x 2.54 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Cultures & Communities
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Work and Industry: Maritime
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Eleanor and Mabel (Marsh) Van Alstyne
Additional Media

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