Practice Scrimshaw Sperm Whale’s Tooth, Mid-19th Century


This two-sided carved whale’s tooth is a rare and unusual practice piece by an accomplished scrimshaw artist. Instead of a finished tooth with fully developed scenes, the artist used the smooth sides of a polished tooth to try out several unrelated subjects in different scales, much like a painter’s sketchbook might show preliminary details in advance of a larger composition. On one side is a revolver, below which are the initials “F.B.” and an open pocket watch and chain. Under that is a fish in profile, above an intricate shoreside scene that wraps around to the other side of the tooth. A well-dressed man in a 19th century wheelchair is on the edge. On the other side are two machines, one of which is a steam cart on wheels. An unfinished lady’s dress is on the bottom, and in the middle of this side are the words “CEDAR CAMPHOR”.

The tooth very clearly demonstrates the pinprick technique used by scrimshanders to engrave their subjects. With this method, artists cut an engraving out of a magazine and pasted it onto a smooth whale’s tooth. Then they pushed a sharp pin through the engraving’s lines, after which the paper was washed off. The scrimshander then connected the dots and rubbed pigment(usually lamp soot) into the engraved lines to make them stand out.

Location: Currently not on view

Subject: Whaling


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


Exhibition Location:

Credit Line: Gift of Frederic A. Delano

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: DL.374505Catalog Number: 374505Accession Number: 136263

Object Name: tooth, whalescrimshawscrimshaw tooth, whale

Physical Description: scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)tooth (overall material)Measurements: overall: 5 3/8 in x 3 3/8 in x 1 3/4 in; 13.6525 cm x 8.5725 cm x 4.445 cm


Record Id: nmah_309418

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