Scrimshaw Sperm Whale’s Tooth

On the main side of this carved tooth is a generic American sailing ship without any of the conventional attributes of whaling, merchant or naval vessels. It has only a large American flag at the stern to set it apart.
What makes this tooth unusual is the carving on the reverse side. It is a picture of a medieval archer, complete with quiver, arrows, sword and shield. An American flag completes the ensemble, and the archer is capped with a little hat with a feather off to one side. This is almost certainly derived from an image in a contemporary magazine, perhaps of a costumed archer from some sort of a public performance (opera, play, musical group). On long whaling voyages, magazines and newspapers were prized commodities, and whalemen often cut out the pictures, pasted them on polished whale’s teeth and pinpricked through the image to derive an outline for further carving. The pinpricks on this image clearly outline the major details and in this way, even a sailor who couldn’t draw freehand could produce a fine carving on a sperm whale’s tooth.
Currently not on view
Object Name
tooth, whale
scrimshaw tooth, whale
date made
Physical Description
scrimshaw (tooth production method/technique)
overall: 7 1/2 in x 4 1/4 in x 3 1/4 in; 19.05 cm x 10.795 cm x 8.255 cm
place made
United States: New England
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Sailing Ships
Cultures & Communities
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Work and Industry: Maritime
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Additional Media

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