Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th Century

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th Century

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A large three-masted oceangoing Chinese junk is etched on the front of this sperm whale tooth, complete with elaborate stern carvings of dragons and floral motifs. Along the stern is written vertically in cursive "this here boat is a chinese junk, such as seen in chinese seas 1847." The other side is decorated with a cameo bust portrait of a neatly dressed man with a well-tended beard; in cursive he is identified as "Capt. Josiah Ellison." The oval portrait is framed with a leafy vine. The carving and writing are freehand, indicating an experienced artist, but the degree of detail in the ship and captain's portraits indicates that the artist worked from illustrations for his images rather than memory.
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 it 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
scrimshaw - tooth
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Object Type
Other Terms
scrimshaw; Maritime
date made
19th century
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 5 1/2 in x 2 1/2 in x 1 5/8 in; 13.97 cm x 6.35 cm x 4.1275 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
From the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Wilbur J. Gould
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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