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Framed Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Teeth, 1865

Framed Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Teeth, 1865

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The backs of two large, matched sperm whale teeth were sawn off, and the front sides were scrimshawed freehand and mounted in an unusual glass-top wooden display case. The tooth on the left displays the stern of a large sailing ship flying an American flag, sailing away from the viewer. At the top are the numbers “18”, matched by the numbers “65” in the same place on the right side tooth. The bow of a large ship engraved on the right tooth is sailing toward the viewer, and it is almost certainly a different view of the same ship on the other tooth. Above and below the main image of the ship on the sea are matching rope and floral motifs.
The sailing ship depicted is a merchant vessel, as shown by the absence of a warship’s guns or the try works characteristic of a whaler. It appears to be a packet ship designed to carry mail, passengers and cargo together, judging from the number of lifeboats over the side on davits.
Below the teeth is a small bone plaque engraved in cursive “Dr. Charles E. Smith”. There was a Dr. Charles E. Smith in Whitesboro, NY during the Civil War, but the 1865 connection between Dr. Smith and a ship or a piece of framed scrimshaw artwork is unknown. The village of Whitesboro is near the precise middle of the state of New York, about the same distance from Long Island Sound and the Great Lakes. The nearest body of water was the Erie Canal passing through the village.
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, in wooden case
scrimshaw tooth, whale, cut in half, in wooden case
date made
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
whale tooth (overall material)
wood (overall material)
glass (overall material)
frame: 11 1/4 in x 9 1/4 in x 2 1/4 in; 28.575 cm x 23.495 cm x 5.715 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
Gift 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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