Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

This long, slender sperm whale tooth has a highly polished surface on all sides. However, only a single image is found on the top of its obverse, leaving nearly the entire tooth undecorated.
Atop a footed stand rests a large bird, with its talons tightly gripping a round perch. Its hooked beak identifies it as a raptor—probably a hawk. The drawing lacks any pinholes, indicating it is a freehand composition and the engraved lines are infilled with black pigment.
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
scrimshaw - tooth
scrimshaw tooth, whale
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
red (overall color)
ivory (overall material)
wood (overall material)
overall: 6 1/2 in x 1 1/4 in x 1 3/4 in; 16.51 cm x 3.175 cm x 4.445 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog 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 Dr. and Mrs. Wilbur J. Gould

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