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

This two-sided carved whale’s tooth is a rare and unusual practice piece by an accomplished scrimshaw artist. Instead of a finished tooth with fully developed scenes, the artist used the smooth sides of a polished tooth to try out several unrelated subjects in different scales, much like a painter’s sketchbook might show preliminary details in advance of a larger composition. On one side is a revolver, below which are the initials “F.B.” and an open pocket watch and chain. Under that is a fish in profile, above an intricate shoreside scene that wraps around to the other side of the tooth. A well-dressed man in a 19th century wheelchair is on the edge. On the other side are two machines, one of which is a steam cart on wheels. An unfinished lady’s dress is on the bottom, and in the middle of this side are the words “CEDAR CAMPHOR”.
The tooth very clearly demonstrates the pinprick technique used by scrimshanders to engrave their subjects. With this method, artists cut an engraving out of a magazine and pasted it onto a smooth whale’s tooth. Then they pushed a sharp pin through the engraving’s lines, after which the paper was washed off. The scrimshander then connected the dots and rubbed pigment(usually lamp soot) into the engraved lines to make them stand out.
Currently not on view
Object Name
tooth, whale
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth (overall material)
overall: 5 3/8 in x 3 3/8 in x 1 3/4 in; 13.6525 cm x 8.5725 cm x 4.445 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Cultures & Communities
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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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