Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 1853

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 1853

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The obverse of this large, highly polished sperm whale tooth has a large whaleship carved into its surface, sailing away from the viewer with all sails set. Two empty whaleboat davits on the starboard or right side indicate that the boats are actively hunting. An etched sawtooth frame encircles the ship. The other side is carved with an eagle with outstretched wings; in one talon it grips three arrows and in the other is a leafy vine. In its beak is a long banner containing the words (from top to bottom) "ABRAHAM CARR/1853/SAG HARBOUR L.I." Like the front, the eagle and banner are framed by a sawtooth pattern, and the entire tooth has a swag top and bottom encircling both sides of the tooth. In the 19th century, Sag Harbor, NY was a major Atlantic whaling port. The fine detail of this freehand-drawn tooth indicates a highly skilled and experienced scrimshaw artist.
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 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, whale
date made
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 7 3/4 in x 3 1/4 in x 2 1/4 in; 19.685 cm x 8.255 cm x 5.715 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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My deceased husband was Martin Bernard Halliday, his father was Bernard Halliday ( a renowned antiquities dealer who did business with most of the world's most famous museums, from the Smithsonian to Ivy League Universities. My father -in-law loved maritime items and I received many as gifts. His finest piece of scrimshaw belongs to me. Sr. Halliday taught that the most proficient carvers would often "start" a protegee by doing some of the most difficult work , as it apparently seems in the above example. Notice the very difficult work of creating a circle and the triangle marks were very accurately done. The protegee was guided through the rest. It is clear to me that the artist who carved my scrimshaw was the teacher of the above pictured piece as it bears his trademark triangles and his devotion to Sag Harbor.

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