Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

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Description
The main surface of this large sperm whale tooth is etched with the famous scene of Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas 1776 into New Jersey. The river was filled with ice, and the rowers had to push it out of their way to get across the river in their heavy, flat-bottom Durham cargo boats. In all, Washington transported ca. 2,400 troops across the Delaware that day. After crossing, they marched nine miles to Trenton, NJ, where they surprised and conquered the British Hessian troops.
The absence of any pinholes indicates that the artist of this piece carved it freehand, but its subject indicates that the artist had a good look at the many images of the famous scene before he began carving. The back of the tooth is smoothed but uncarved, with a large piece missing from the bottom edge.
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
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth (overall material)
Measurements
overall: 7 7/8 in; 20.066 cm
ID Number
DL.374497
catalog number
374497
accession number
136263
Credit Line
Gift of Frederic A. Delano
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Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Art
Transportation
Scrimshaw
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center

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