Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

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This elegant tooth could serve as a primer or pictorial dictionary on the different types of sailing ship rigs. Spread out over its surface are a fully rigged three-masted ship; a topsail brig; a hermaphrodite brig; a two-masted schooner; a cutter; a yawl; a barque; and a brigantine. About half of the fleet have American flags, and all have the vertical sail sections or gores carefully delineated. The larger ship types have gun ports along their sides; the smaller types have the strakes or hull planks etched along their sides. Around the top of the tooth, a little building inside a fenced area is engraved with three trees around it.
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
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
wood (base material)
tooth (overall material)
overall: 12.7 cm; 5 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Eleanor and Mabel (Marsh) Van Alstyne
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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