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

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

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The pictures carved on whales’ teeth by scrimshaw artists commonly fall into a group of simple categories, like ships, whales, patriotic scenes, women, shorelines, and the like. Sometimes a tooth’s carving will tell a simple story about danger, loneliness, love or war. Other times, the tale that a tooth tells is lost in time, perhaps forever. This little tooth may be one of the latter. On the top of one side are two outlined flags: on the left is an American flag, and on the right is a flag with a large “M” on it. Both are waving in the wind. Below are the words “OUR COMPROMISE” in two lines. At the bottom is a small cannon on a truck, or carriage. The truck construction indicates that it is a land weapon rather than a ship armament. The depth of the gun etching is much deeper than the flags, perhaps indicating a different artist. Although it is polished and prepared for carving, the other side of the tooth is not decorated. The lack of a date or any other identifying factors makes it almost impossible to decipher the artist’s message to us from an earlier time. Was it a private message to a friend or lover, a political statement, a military event.
Currently not on view
Object Name
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 4 1/2 in x 1 3/4 in x 1 3/8 in; 11.43 cm x 4.445 cm x 3.4925 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
From the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Wilbur J. Gould
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Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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