Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 20th Century

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On the obverse of this large sperm whale tooth is a big three-masted ship sailing from right to left in a high sea against a hilly shoreline. A light or beacon shines from a tower on the shore behind the ship, which has 12 gunports cut or painted on its port or left side. A sketchy American flag on the mizzenmast identifies the ship’s nationality. The even depth of the carving, uniform shading and overall quality of this freehand composition and infill suggest that it was carved by a land-based artist in the 20th century rather than a 19th century whaleman.
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
date made
20th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth (overall material)
overall: 18.7 cm x 7.1 cm; 7 3/8 in x 2 13/16 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Eleanor and Mabel (Marsh) Van Alstyne.
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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