Busks are long, flat slices out of whalebone ribs or other whale parts that whaling crews decorated with carvings and then gave to their wives or sweethearts once they were back on land after a voyage. Busks were slipped into vertical pocket in ladies’ corsets to stiffen the garment.
This unusual example is made out of black baleen from the mouth of a baleen whale rather than an ivory-colored rib. It is in poor condition, and appears to have been shot on both sides with buckshot on account of the size and shapes of the holes over its entire surface. The back is heavily scratched and has the letters “MAM” etched into its surface in a childish scrawl.
This busk has four vertical unframed compositions stacked on its exterior; the back is undecorated. At the bottom is a two-masted brig with gun ports sailing from right to left. Above is a sketch of a small domed building set in a flagstone patio, in a view like a builder’s measured design plan. Above that is another, different domed building with a larger dome relative to its footprint. The top vignette contains the portside profile of a hermaphrodite or half brig, square-rigged on the foremast and fore-and-aft rigged on the mainmast, sailing from the right towards a rocky shore. It too has gun ports along its port side.
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.
Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.