Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid-19th Century

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid-19th Century

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This small sperm whale tooth is carved on two sides, with the pictures apparently unrelated. On the obverse is a heavy woman standing in a theatrical entry, probably in some sort of operatic pose. Her arms are crossed, holding a long shawl around her shoulders over a heavy, floor-length gown. Her eyes are more deeply engraved than other features and infilled with black paint, emphasizing her solemn gaze into an imaginary audience. The technique used by the artist is a combination of pinpricking and freehand carving, for an amateur effect.
Although the subject on the reverse also is a woman, the effect is completely different. Here, a beautiful, elegantly dressed young woman gazes demurely downwards at a closed fan in one hand. A large bustle adorns the back of her dress, which is made of rich, elegant patterned materials. Her hair is swept up in a bun, decorated and held up by a band with red highlights. Carved by the pinprick method, the original artwork used by the scrimshaw artist was probably out of a ladies’ fashion magazine of the period. The use of pinpricking for both linework and integrated detailing speaks to an experienced artist comfortable with his tools, techniques and subject matter.
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
tooth, whale
scrimshaw tooth, whale
date made
mid 19th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth, ivory (overall material)
overall: 4 1/4 in x 1 7/8 in x 1 3/16 in; 10.795 cm x 4.7625 cm x 3.01625 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Frederic A. Delano
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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