Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 1835

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 1835

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One of the largest sperm whale teeth in the American History Museum’s collection, this huge example measures 8-1/2 inches long. One entire side is taken up by the horizontal inscription “TAKEN BY THE SHIP/ MONTREAL OF LONDON/IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN FROM/A ONE HUNDRED BARREL/ WHALE”. The other side portrays a small stream surrounding a tiny village of three houses. In the center of the clearing is a fenced fort-like square structure; a hole drilled in the middle was probably for a metal mount to display the inscription on the other side.
This tooth was exhibited in 1859 in the maritime and natural history exhibit at the US Patent Office in Washington and is in the exhibit catalog A Popular Catalog of the Extraordinary Curiosities in the National Institute Arranged in the Building Belonging to the Patent Office (Washington, DC: Alfred Hunter, 1859).
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
Other Terms
tooth, whale, scrimshaw; Maritime
date made
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth (overall material)
overall: 8 1/2 in; 21.59 cm
ID Number
catalog number
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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