Passing the Time at Sea
During their idle hours, whalemen produced scrimshaw for family members, sweethearts, and friends. Scrimshaw refers to decorative and utilitarian objects carved from bone, ivory teeth, and baleen, and to designs engraved on the same materials.
Some whalemen sketched their designs freehand, but more often they copied or traced drawings from popular publications. The subjects often included whaling ships and details of the whale hunt, racy images of women, patriotic motifs, and idealized images of home and family.
Crew List, 1876
Every voyage began with assembling a crew. In May 1876, the small 106-foot bark Bartholomew Gosnold signed a crew of 31 men for its next voyage from New Bedford. Less than half were from the United States; the rest were from Portugal, England, Ireland, Germany, France, and Scotland; two were listed as blacks. The oldest crewman was in his forties; the youngest was sixteen.
Manifest for the Bartholomew Gosnold, 1880
The Bartholomew Gosnold returned home to New Bedford in June 1880, just over four years after it left. Its cargo was sworn to include 1,260 barrels of whale and sperm oil; 95 casks of sperm, whale, and humpback oil totaling 26,742 gallons; and 27 bundles of whalebone, for a profitable voyage.
Polychrome Scrimshaw Tooth, 1865--69
Even whalemen with little or no artistic talent could carve highly detailed scenes like this with the pinprick technique. A picture cut from a magazine was pasted or dampened and wrapped on the polished surface of a sperm whale’s tooth. The whaler pushed a sharp pin through the lines of the image, then removed it, leaving the dots on the surface. He engraved the picture by connecting the dots and rubbing black soot or colored pigments into the lines.
USS Alaska Commemorative Tooth, 1878
This massive tooth of a sperm whale records the visit of the sloop of war USS Alaska to Talcahuano, Chile, in September 1878. Fifty-four of Alaska’s crew went absent without leave, and three more were confined to leg irons and handcuffs for their behavior on shore.
Ivory Whale Stamp, 1800s
Carved from the teeth of sperm whales, whale stamps were used to record types of whales and the number of barrels of oil rendered from them. The stamps were inked into a whaleship’s log, with an empty space for writing in the number. This stamp is carved in the shape of a sperm whale.
Logbook, Whaling Bark Virginia of New Bedford, 1840
This logbook chronicles the Virginia’s voyage through the Pacific whaling grounds. The December 16 entry tells the story of two whales that were caught and processed. The figures inside the whale stamps show the barrels of oil taken from each whale. The last word, “Amanda,” reveals the writer’s homesickness. Her name appears often, as do the words “home sweet home.”
Whalebone Ruler, 1800s
Straight edges or rulers, were used aboard whale ships as writing guides in the unlined pages of journals and logbooks. The back side of this long stick is marked in 2-1/4, 4-1/2 and 9-inch sections. The ship’s cooper may have used the ruler to measure the level of liquid in his wooden casks.