Scrimshaw Whale Busk, 19th Century

Busks are long, flat slices out of whalebone ribs that whaling crews decorated with carvings and then gave to their wives or sweethearts once they were back on land after a voyage. Busks were slipped into vertical pocket in ladies’ corsets to stiffen the garment.
This example has four vertical unframed compositions stacked on its exterior; the back is undecorated. On the rounded bottom is the corner tower of a heavy stone fort, complete with arrow slits and crenellations along the top. Above that is a large sailing ship heeled over in a strong wind with reduced sails. Although it has gun ports along its port side, they do not necessarily indicate a warship since merchant vessels painted gun ports on their hulls for protection. Above that is a small gaff-rigged sloop or cutter for coastal trade. On top is an old, gnarled leafy tree with several lower branches sawn off. A bi-lobed top completes the piece; the absence of any pin pricking in the drawings indicates that a skilled freehand artist carved this piece.
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 busk bone
date made
19th century
Physical Description
tooth (overall material)
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
bone, whale (overall material)
overall: 13 in x 1 7/8 in; 33.02 cm x 4.7625 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 Dr. & Mrs. Arthur M. Greenwood
Additional Media

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