Scrimshaw Walrus Tusk, 19th Century

Scrimshaw Walrus Tusk, 19th Century

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This long, highly polished walrus tusk is scrimshawed on one side; the other remains rough and unpolished. At the bottom is a heraldic shield and weapons image with a British flag and a sash with a crown. Above is a mid-19th century bust portrait of a young woman with elaborately coiffed hair, a brooch on a ribbon around her neck and a low-cut fur bodice—possibly an opera singer or stage actress. Above, a circular motif frames an anchor topped with eight stars. The highest image is only a little more than halfway up the long tusk, and it is an unfinished scene of two doves both reaching for the same ribbon. The rest of the tusk is polished but undecorated to the top, which is pierced by a hole for hanging the piece. On the back in small letters is the word “HAZEN”, which might be the name of the scrimshander who carved this tusk.
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
tusk, walrus
scrimshaw tusk, walrus
date made
19th century
Physical Description
ivory (overall material)
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
overall: 21 in; 53.34 cm
ID Number
catalog number
Credit Line
Gift of M. M. Hazen.
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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