Scrimshaw Ditty Box, mid 19th Century

The sides of this whalebone ditty box are carved from a single piece of whalebone, shaved to make it uniformly thin. The overlapping ends are fastened together with tiny silver alloy rivets, which also fasten the sides to the pine bottom. Unfortunately, the top is missing. The outside of the box is engraved and infilled in green pigment with alternating columns and laurel leaves; leafy vines mount the columns. The overlapping ends of the bone strip are carved with two contiguous vases with three-part leaves sprouting from the tops. The craftsmanship and quality of the freehand carving and fastenings are exceptionally fine, and the condition of this box is outstanding.
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 oval box
Object Type
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
bone (sides material)
wood (bottom material)
overall: 6 13/16 in x 5 1/2 in x 2 5/16 in; 17.30375 cm x 13.97 cm x 5.87375 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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