Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th Century

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th Century

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Only one side of this little sperm whale tooth is carved, and the freehand carving is compressed into only a small area of the available polished surface. The other side is blank. On the left is a classic whaleboat with the standard six crew: four rowers, a boatsteerer at the stern and a harpooner at the bow. All of them are wearing hats. The harpooner holds up a harpoon and is ready to throw the dart into the whale. The scrimshaw artist has cleverly incorporated a crack in the tooth's surface into a line from the boat to the first harpoon, which is sticking out of a whale's back, for what is called a "Nantucket Sleigh Ride". This was slang for when a whale towed a whaleboat until it tired and rose to the water surface.
After the tow or sleigh ride, the whaleboat would row up to the exhausted whale and kill it. It was normal to use two harpoons to fasten to a whale, in case one was lost or twisted out by the whale's movements. The boat, crew and whale are in light black or brown pigment. By contrast, the water surface is pale blue, which is a rare pigment in the art of scrimshaw.
Currently not on view
Object Name
scrimshaw tooth, whale
date made
19th century
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 5 in x 1 3/4 in x 1 1/4 in; 12.7 cm x 4.445 cm x 3.175 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
From the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Wilbur J. Gould
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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