Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th Century

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th Century

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The surface of this smooth, polished small sperm whale tooth is carved with the image of a sperm whale, with the characteristically toothed lower jaw delineated. The oversize tail is deeply pleated like the belly of a blue whale, and the body of the whale is deeply gouged out to show depth, but not infilled with pigment. Above the whale is a harpoon with a barbed point; below the animal is a hand lance or killing iron with a laurel-leaf-shaped point. The back of the tooth is highly polished but undecorated.
A barbed harpoon was thrown to fasten to a whale, and usually at least two were used to ensure a good connection to the whaleboat. Once the whale was tired enough from towing the whaleboat to be more docile, it was hauled alongside and the mate plunged the killing iron into the whale's "life," or thick neck arteries, several times to drown it in its own blood.
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 intricate, fine-lined 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 it 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
scrimshaw tooth, whale
date made
19th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 4 1/2 in x 1 3/4 in x 1 1/4 in; 11.43 cm x 4.445 cm x 3.175 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
From the collection 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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