Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

Description
One side of this tooth depicts a sailor with his legs spread wide for balance. In his right hand he holds a sword; in his left hand is a British flag on a short pole. A wide brimmed hat is on his head and a kerchief circles his neck. Below are engraved the initials “R.D.” On the other side, a three-masted sailing ship clips along under a heavy wind. Its flag and pennant are too small to identify; ten gun ports are visible along the port side. These do not necessarily indicate a warship, however; many merchant vessels had gun ports painted along their hulls to look like warships from a distance. This would keep away pirates or enemies. The engraving is shallow and faint on this tooth, and any black pigment that might have been wiped into the lines for contrast has not lasted.
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.
Location
Currently not on view
Object Name
scrimshaw
scrimshaw - tooth
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Object Type
scrimshaws
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
Measurements
overall: 5 1/4 in x 2 1/4 in x 1 3/8 in; 13.335 cm x 5.715 cm x 3.4925 cm
ID Number
1978.0052.34
accession number
1978.0052
catalog number
1978.52.34
subject
Whaling
Art
Cultures & Communities
Transportation
Scrimshaw
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Scrimshaw
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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