Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 20th Century

This finely-engraved sperm whale tooth celebrates the port of Salem, MA in the mid-19th century. On the front is a full-rigged three-masted ship sailing in a heavy sea; a large cloud dominates the scene. Below is a banner bearing the inscription "WITCH OF THE WAVE/The Pride of Salem". The back of the tooth is covered with an isometric view of Derby Wharf in Salem, Massachusetts, with two ships tied up at the wharf and a third approaching from the right.
Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799) of Salem, MA was America's first millionaire, and his family's wharf dominated Salem's waterfront for generations. Salem was the largest and most important New England port in the United States until the War of 1812, when Boston took over that honor.
Measuring 220 feet long by 40 feet in beam and 1,498 tons, Witch of the Wave was an extreme clipper ship built in 1851 for the California Gold Rush and the China tea trade. On its first voyage from China to London, Witch transported 19,000 chests of the finest teas for sale. In the mid-1850s, Witch so impressed the Batavia merchants in that port that it was purchased by Dutch merchants. It sailed out of Amsterdam until 1871, when it dropped out of the record.
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 intricate, fine-lined 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 it 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
Object Type
date made
20th century
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 5 3/4 in x 2 1/2 in x 1 1/2 in; 14.605 cm x 6.35 cm x 3.81 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
Additional Media

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