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

Description
The etching on this polished and carved whale’s tooth portrays a very formally dressed young lady wearing a cap, shoulder cape, apron and leggings, standing on a small piece of ground. Her eyes are fixed on her left hand, which holds forth a daisy. This tooth is one of a pair with Cat. 37490, which is the same size and has a very similar subject by the same sailor.
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 1 3/8 in x 1 9/16 in; 13.97 cm x 3.4925 cm x 3.96875 cm
ID Number
DL.374489
catalog number
374489
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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