Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, mid 19th Century

<< >>
Usage conditions apply
This small tooth has four images on it that appear unrelated. On the bottom of the main side is an oceangoing three-masted sidewheel paddle steamship. An American flag flying at the stern identifies its nationality, and the presence of the three masts alongside the steam engine indicates that it predates the 1880s. By that time, steam engines were reliable enough to eliminate the need for auxiliary sail on ocean steamers.
Above the steamer at a different scale is a long, three story building with rectangular windows along the side wing and end on the ground level. On the end are arched and semi-circular windows above the main door, to which a set of stairs ascends. Three long vertical spikes are spaced along the roof that may represent lightning rods. The long roof has three dormers along its length and a tree is visible at the end of the wing. Above the building is a sketchy eagle grasping a schematized shield and arrows in his talons. To the left of the eagle is a crest with stars and stripes. There may be a story linking the four pictures to each other, but it is long lost in time.
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)
overall: 5 1/4 in x 4 1/16 in x 3 1/4 in; 13.335 cm x 10.31875 cm x 8.255 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Eleanor and Mabel Van Alstyne American Folk Art Collection
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