Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th Century

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th Century

Usage conditions apply
Most scrimshaw images are engraved lines in the surface of a whales’ teeth that are then filled in with lamp black, leaving a one-dimensional effect. Many artists used a pin to pricked through a drawing which lay agianst the tooth. The lines were then connected in a “fill in the dots” picture. This allowed even unskilled craftsmen to create fine carvings.
By contrast, the artist of this eagle was a skilled engraver, who drew his bird freehand and then modeled the surface of the tooth to achieve depth. He also used cross hatching for the same effect. However, the bird may have been drawn from the artist’s memory or imagination, in that the head and body are scrawny, but the feathers are extremely accurate. The wings and talons are oversized, and the talon on the left is sprouting lightning bolts. More commonly on the American eagle, the left talon grasps leaves of peace and the right side talon holds arrows of war.
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.
It 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
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth, ivory (overall material)
overall: 5 1/16 in x 2 1/2 in x 1 3/8 in; 12.85875 cm x 6.35 cm x 3.4925 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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