Scrimshaw Tooth

Scrimshaw was one of the byproducts of the American whale fishery, which flourished from the late 18th through the first half of the 19th century. It refers to decorative and utilitarian objects carved from marine ivory, whalebone, and baleen, and to designs engraved on the same materials. Whalemen produced scrimshaw during their idle hours on long voyages, and idle hours they had in abundance: some ships spent more than three years sailing the world's oceans in search of whales.
Some whalemen sketched their designs freehand, but more often they copied or traced drawings from popular publications of the day. The subjects they chose ranged from whaling ships and details of the whale hunt to patriotic motifs and idealized images of home and family.
This piece of scrimshaw depicts a young woman dressed in black, a Victorian maiden of about 1840, judging by her dress and hairstyle. She is gazing at an open locket that contains the picture of a young man. Her forlorn expression and her jewelry--a black Maltese cross--suggest that she may be in mourning. As with most scrimshaw, the carver of this piece is unknown, and we can only wonder if he was imagining a real event behind the sad woman with the locket.
Object Name
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Date made
ca 1840
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
sperm whale tooth (overall material)
wood (base material)
overall: 6 3/4 in x 3 1/2 in x 2 5/16 in; 17.145 cm x 8.89 cm x 5.87375 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Family & Social Life
Clothing & Accessories
Natural Resources
Cultures & Communities
Industry & Manufacturing
On the Water exhibit
Expansion and Reform
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
On the Water exhibit
On the Water
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Frederic A. Delano
Publication title
On the Water online exhibition
Publication URL

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