Polychrome Scrimshaw Whale Tooth

Polychrome Scrimshaw Whale Tooth

Usage conditions apply
Even whalemen with little or no artistic talent could carve highly detailed scenes, through use of the pinprick technique. In this method, a picture was cut from a contemporary magazine and then pasted or dampened to stick to the polished surface of a sperm whale's tooth. A sharp pin was then pushed through the lines of the image, which was then removed. This left lines of dots; when these were connected with engraved lines, they formed a copy of the original picture. Most commonly, lamp black (soot) was then rubbed into the engraved lines to make them stand out from the background of the tooth, although colored pigments like those on this tooth also could be applied for variety. The high fashion of this lady's garments bracket a date just a few years after the end of the Civil War.
Object Name
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Date made
1865 - 1869
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
bone (overall material)
pinprick technique (overall production method/technique)
overall: 6 3/4 in x 3 1/2 in x 2 5/16 in; 17.145 cm x 8.89 cm x 5.9055 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Frederic A. Delano
Civil War and Reconstruction
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Industry & Manufacturing
Natural Resources
On the Water exhibit
On the Water
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
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