As a public health precaution due to COVID-19, all Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are temporarily closed. We are not announcing a reopening date at this time and will provide updates on our website and social media.

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 1867

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 1867

<< >>
Usage conditions apply
Downloads
Description
The obverse of this large, flat sperm whale tooth is etched with a large, full-rigged ship with all sails set, driving from left to right towards the viewer. The yards or horizontal spars are deeply pinpricked, but the rest of the ship was carved freehand. The scene has an oval frame with a running vine along its centerline. On the back, an elegant compass rose marked with the four compass directions N, S, E & W is carved, surmounted by a banner with "EMERALD/JOBE HICKS" etched into its surface. Above is the date 1867.
The ship lacks boat davits or any other whaling attributes and the last whaling ship named Emerald completed its final whaling voyage in 1866, so the vessel is identified as a merchant vessel. Jobe Hicks was likely the artist who carved the tooth.
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.
Location
Currently not on view
Object Name
scrimshaw tooth
scrimshaw tooth, whale
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
Measurements
overall: 6 in x 3 1/2 in x 1 3/4 in; 15.24 cm x 8.89 cm x 4.445 cm
ID Number
1978.0052.27
accession number
1978.0052
catalog number
1978.52.27
Credit Line
From the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Wilbur J. Gould
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Transportation
Scrimshaw
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.

Note: Comment submission on our collection pages is temporarily unavailable. Please check back soon!

If you have a question or require a personal response, please visit our FAQ or contact page.