Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

Description
Patriotic subjects were very popular with scrimshaw artists. General George Washington is the main subject engraved on this sperm whale tooth. He is depicted in military uniform leaning against a large rock, with a sentry guarding a tent camp in the background. Overhead is an emblematic eagle crest with spread wings, complete with striped shield and a banner fluttering in his mouth. His left talon holds a bunch of arrows and the right holds olive branches. Oddly, the Washington scene lacks a single pinhole, indicating a freehand sketch by a confident artist. However, the crest above has very dense pinpricking throughout the composition, suggesting that a different, less experienced artist probably needed an illustration to guide his design. The reverse side is polished but undecorated.
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
Object Name
tooth, whale
scrimshaw tooth, whale
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
Measurements
overall: 13.1 cm x 6.2 cm; 5 3/16 in x 2 7/16 in
ID Number
DL*024889
catalog number
024889
accession number
4362
subject
Transportation
Art
Cultures & Communities
Scrimshaw
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Scrimshaw
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Additional Media

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