Scrimshaw Sperm Whale’s Tooth

A 20-gun American sailing warship covers the upper portion of one side of this intricately detailed scrimshaw sperm whale tooth. Nearly every sail is set; flags are flying; and every gun port is open with its gun out and ready for action. Unusually, the flying flags and pennants are polychrome, with red stripes.
Below are two smaller ships in their own etched checkerboard frames, sailing towards each other on a collision course. Normally these would represent different views of the larger ship above, but both of these sailing ships are merchant vessels, without any guns. The vessel on the right is spewing smoke out of a midship smoke stack, and may be either an auxiliary steamer or a whaleship trying out a whale. In trying out, a whale’s outer layer of body fat or “blubber” was cut into small pieces and tossed into a hot cauldron to render it down into liquid.
The other side of the tooth is carved with a hillside town, with several levels of buildings dominated by a large cathedral with a tall steeple reaching up into the sky. The steeple also has red accents. On the lowest level along the waterfront are two arches; a “D” is carved into one, and a shallow “S” was carved into the other. However, the “S” was scratched out and not in-filled with black pigment to make it stand out, like the rest of the tooth’s carving. Below in the harbor are two small but detailed sailing ships without sails, probably at anchor. The one on the right has a smoking stack similar to the vessel on the other side of the tooth, but much of that ship is gone because the base of the tooth is broken and missing.
Although the style of the carving on this tooth is relatively simple, it was made by an experienced schrimshander, as shown by the amount of detail, the depth of the etching and the infilling.
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
tooth, whale
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
overall: 5 13/16 in; 14.732 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 Frederic A. Delano
Additional Media

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