Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid-19th century

Palm trees on the left side of this whaling scene identify the setting as the Pacific Ocean. In the center, a whaleboat with five rowers and a boatsteerer head for a whale blowing, or exhaling through the blowhole on top of its head. A harpooner is braced in the bow to drive an iron into the whale's back. Fluffy clouds overhead frame the scene; in the right background, an American whaling ship has all sails set and is making for the whaleboat. Below the scene in a deeply pricked oval are the dotted initials "E.A.P."—probably the scrimshaw artist's initials. The backside of the tooth is roughly sanded and undecorated.
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 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
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 7 1/4 in x 3 3/4 in x 2 1/2 in; 18.415 cm x 9.525 cm x 6.35 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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