This long, sharp walrus tusk tip has two whales engraved on its sides. On one side is a sperm whale, with its mouth wide open displaying its characteristic teeth in the lower jaw. Beneath it is the inscription: “LONG IS.” The other side has a large baleen or right whale, with the inscription “THo 1854 WILLETS” carved below. Baleen whales lack teeth and filter their food through hundreds of long, thin, flexible baleen plates. Thomas Willets was probably a crewman on an 1854 sealing or whaling voyage out of Long Island, a region in New York known for its whaling industry. In the 19th century, the Willets family was widespread and well known in the New York area.
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.