Scrimshaw Whale Tooth, mid 20th Century

Scrimshaw Whale Tooth, mid 20th Century

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This massive sperm whale tooth is deeply engraved on one side with an elaborately detailed scene of the ‘cutting in’ process on the port or left side of the whaleship John R. Manta. The carving commemorates the last whaling voyage on a sailing ship out of New Bedford, MA in 1925; the schooner returned to its home port New Bedford with only 300 barrels of sperm oil. This tooth belonged to a writer who accompanied the Manta on this last voyage; his daughter donated it to the Smithsonian in 1976. It was carved by an artist with the initials “W.P.”; since none of the ship’s crew or officers had these initials, the tooth likely was carved after the voyage.
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 20th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 9 3/4 in x 3 3/4 in x 2 1/4 in; 24.765 cm x 9.525 cm x 5.715 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
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Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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