Scrimshaw Whale Busk, 19th Century

Scrimshaw Whale Busk, 19th Century

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Busks are long, flat slices out of whalebone ribs that whaling crews decorated with carvings and then gave to their wives or sweethearts once they were back on land after a voyage. Busks were slipped into vertical pocket in ladies’ corsets to stiffen the garment.
This example has four stacked pictures framed by straight lines and has polychrome infill of red and black. On the rounded bottom is a sideways image of a harp and horn in red against a red flag motif, surrounded by a leafy vine in black outline. Above is a vertically-oriented three-masted sailing ship shown from behind, sailing away from the viewer. A red rainbow is overhead this and the next scene as well: a sideways view of a whale towing a whaleboat on a Nantucket sleigh ride. The harpooner in the bow of the whaleboat is holding a killing iron. Overhead are two seabirds, one of which has a laurel sprig in its mouth. Beneath the red rainbow is a red sun, and two wagon wheel-like circles decorate each corner. The bi-lobed top of the busk contains an eagle rampant with vines in its talons and a banner behind its head.
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.
Currently not on view
Object Name
scrimshaw - busk bone
date made
19th century
Physical Description
bone, whale (overall material)
overall: 13 3/8 in x 1 1/2 in; 33.9725 cm x 3.81 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Dr. & Mrs. Arthur M. Greenwood
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Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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