Scrimshaw Bone Ruler or Straight Edge, 19th Century


This straight, thick piece of whale bone measuring 13-1/2 inches long is marked at one-and-half inch intervals, starting one inch in from the left end. Such tools were used to rule straight lines in ship logbooks, journals, letters and account books.

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.

Date Made: 19th century

Location: Currently not on view

See more items in: Work and Industry: Maritime, Cultures & Communities, Scrimshaw, Transportation, Art


Exhibition Location:

Credit Line: Helen Freeman, Willard Nye Estate

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: DL.249981Catalog Number: 249981Accession Number: 48696

Object Name: scrimshaw bone rulerrulerbone ruler

Physical Description: bone, whale (overall material)scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)Measurements: overall: 13 1/2 in x 15/16 in; 34.29 cm x 2.38125 cm


Record Id: nmah_309375

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