Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th Century

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th Century

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The surface of this small sperm whale tooth was not smoothed or polished much before the artist began his carving. On one side, an etched rectangular frame contains a whale on the water surface spouting, or exhaling through the blowhole on the top of its head. This distinctive vertical spout of water vapor by a pod or group of whales was actively sought by whaleship lookouts as evidence that their prey was nearby. Below the whale is pricked out the word "SPOUTER." Above the frame is an accurately drawn harpoon with two lines attached to its shaft. The other side is undecorated.
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 it 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.
Currently not on view
Object Name
scrimshaw tooth, whale
date made
19th century
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 4 in x 1 5/8 in x 1 1/4 in; 10.16 cm x 4.1275 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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