Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 1867

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The obverse of this large, flat sperm whale tooth is etched with a large, full-rigged ship with all sails set, driving from left to right towards the viewer. The yards or horizontal spars are deeply pinpricked, but the rest of the ship was carved freehand. The scene has an oval frame with a running vine along its centerline. On the back, an elegant compass rose marked with the four compass directions N, S, E & W is carved, surmounted by a banner with "EMERALD/JOBE HICKS" etched into its surface. Above is the date 1867.
The ship lacks boat davits or any other whaling attributes and the last whaling ship named Emerald completed its final whaling voyage in 1866, so the vessel is identified as a merchant vessel. Jobe Hicks was likely the artist who carved the tooth.
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
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 6 in x 3 1/2 in x 1 3/4 in; 15.24 cm x 8.89 cm x 4.445 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Wilbur J. Gould
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Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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