Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

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This large sperm whale tooth is 7-1/2 inches high. On the main side is a portrait bust of a middle-aged man from the left side. He is well dressed with vest, tie and jacket, but unshaven and growing out a beard. His hair is thin on top and he has a comb over. Although he is not identified, the unusual size of the tooth and high quality of the engraving indicates that he was an important individual.
The reverse of the tooth has a woman on a rearing horse on a rocky landscape; she holds the reins in her left hand and is waving on high a flag on a short pole in her right hand. A helmeted male figure with a staff, bow and small shield is holding a section of her garment, but it is not clear whether he is helping her with a frisky horse or trying to pull her off it. This is probably some sort of theatrical, allegorical or mythical scene (Apollo chasing Daphne?), but its meaning and any relationship to the figure on the other side are not clear.
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 19th century
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth (overall material)
overall: 7 1/2 in; 19.05 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Frederic A. Delano
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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