One of a Pair of Scrimshaw Sperm Whale’s Teeth, late 19th Century

This is one of a pair of decorative whales teeth (374507 and 374508). Both are the same size, have similar subjects by the same hand and identical mahogany bases for vertical display. Originally, they would have decorated a family parlor, or a gentleman’s bureau or dressing room. This tooth has a heavily costumed couple on the obverse, depicting a couple at a moment of parting, perhaps Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet.
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
Object Name
tooth, whale
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth, ivory (overall material)
overall: 5 7/8 in x 3 in x 2 1/4 in; 14.9225 cm x 7.62 cm x 5.715 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Cultures & Communities
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Frederic A. Delano
Additional Media

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