Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid-late 19th Century

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid-late 19th Century

<< >>
Usage conditions apply
This classic example of scrimshaw has a portrait of a fashionable young woman pinpricked into the surface of a polished sperm whale’s tooth. The artist’s inexperience is evident in the overuse of the pinpricking technique, whereby a magazine illustration is wetted and smoothed on the surface of a tooth and then pricked through to get the subject’s outline. Nearly every detail of this carving is guided by the original illustration, with nothing left to interpretation. As a result, the woman’s face has a deep, dark outline where the original picture was shaded. Her headband is decorated with tiny flowers and some portions of her hair and accessories are incomplete, giving an unfinished look to the artwork.
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
1850 - 1900
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth (overall material)
overall: 4 in; 10.16 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
Nominate this object for photography.   

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.


Add a comment about this object