Scrimshaw Ivory Whale Stamp, mid 19th Century

<< >>
Generally carved from sperm whales teeth, whale stamps were used in whaleships’ official logbooks to record the type of whales captured on any given day, and the number of barrels of oil the whale yielded once its blubber or fat was boiled down into liquid.
This example has an “S” carved on its top; around the bottom the whale ship’s name “Splendid” is engraved. Below, the initials “H.B.” and fraction “1/2” are carved. On the bottom is a schematized whale in profile, with a hole in the middle of the stamp to write the number of barrels of oil it gave up.
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
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
ivory, whale (overall material)
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
overall: 1 1/8 in x 1 in; 2.8575 cm x 2.54 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History


Add a comment about this object