Scrimshaw (2), sperm whale tooth, carver unknown, Australia, nineteenth century
The word scrimshaw is primarily used to describe the carving and decoration of baleen (sometimes referred to as whalebone) and skeletal bones and teeth (sometimes referred to as ivory). Other materials used are horn, wood and walrus tusks. Some of the earliest and best known examples of the art of scrimshaw were made by whalers from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century.
Scrimshaw is essentially a folk art as most examples were produced by working men who found themselves far from home with time on their hands and carved scrimshaw objects to pass the time. Sailors away at sea for months or even years at a stretch carved baleen, teeth, and whalebone into a variety of forms. These included functional items such as tools and ships fittings but they also fabricated toys, cutlery and jewellery.
The best known items associated with scrimshaw however are the purely decorative engravings found on baleen and whale teeth. The subjects of these engravings are extremely varied with some drawn freehand, based on a sailor's experience, while others were copied from popular magazines of the time. Inscriptions, particularly those that identify ships and places are rare and generally it is difficult to date a piece solely on stylistic grounds.
Whale scrimshaw objects were derived from two groups of whales; the Mysticeti (baleen whales), and the Odontoceti, the toothed whale. Mysticeti, 'Right' whales, are found in colder waters and were the first to be used commercially. Odontoceti, 'Sperm' whales, are found in the warmer waters of the Pacific and have an average of 25 teeth embedded in their lower jaw. Once scraped and polished these were engraved with a sharp blade or point and then rubbed with ink or a mixture of oil and soot make the image stand out.
Whaling in the Pacific was opened up at the end of the eighteenth century by sailors mainly from American, English and French vessels. As a result some of the best scrimshaw from Pacific whales can be found in collections in these countries. Even though sailors must have had plenty of spare time between periods of whaling scrimshaw on whale teeth seems a rarity before the 1830s. One reason may have been the high price paid for whale teeth ivory in this period making scrimshaw on teeth popular only after the market was saturated and the had price dropped. The earliest identified engraver of whale teeth is the English whaling master Captain J. S. King who was active between 1817 and 1823.
Serious collecting of scrimshaw in America began in the 1940s when it was recognised as a unique form of folk art. President Kennedy was a collector of scrimshaw and this did much to popularise its collection. After he was assassinated in 1963 a piece of scrimshaw was placed alongside him in his coffin.
Given the predominance of American ships it is surprising to find much of the surviving scrimshaw is of British origin. Whaling ships used Australian and New Zealand ports to re-supply and this accounts for much of the foreign scrimshaw found in these countries. Australian whaling was conducted on a smaller scale making Australian scrimshaw harder to find. This is one of several pieces of Scrimshaw purchased from Hartley Roberts in 1892 and although the carver is unknown its purchase in Australia and the early date adds to the significance of this object.
West, J., Credland, G., 'Scrimshaw: The Art of the Whaler', Hutton Press, Yorkshire, England, 1995
McClelland Gallery, 'Scrimshaw the Sailor's Art', McClelland Gallery, Victoria, Australia, 1986
Geoff Barker, March, 2007
This whale tooth scrimshaw was made in the 19th century.
The technique of scrimshaw involved the scraping, filing and grinding of the object, before honing the surface (but in the case of teeth and bone this was done with shark skin). With a smooth medium on which to work, the sailors used a variety of tools (awls, gimlets, files, sail needles and knives) to incise the surface. Once the desired pattern had been completed, it was rubbed over with soot, tar, Indian ink or lamp black. Polishing removed the excess colour leaving a graphic representation of fine black lines.
Illustrations from books or journals were traced onto the surface by pricking the outline of the picture with a pin. The dots were then joined up with incisions, and the process finished as usual. Objects produced by these methods were many and varied and include crimping wheels for decorating pie crusts, ink stands, cuff links, studs, walking sticks and knife handles. Teeth, bones, shells and wood were also lathe-turned, carved and skilfully inlaid to make cribbage boards and work boxes. The subjects depicted were as varied as the objects they adorn. Whaling scenes were popular, as were sailing ships, figures of gentlemen and ladies, and scenes taken from illustrations of classical subjects. For more information see: Keenan, Annette,. "Scrimshaw" in A Companion to the Mint Collection (Sydney, 1982).
Scrimshandering or scrimshaw as we know it, is a craft of the whalemen. The origin of the word is obscure. It refers both to the technique and the finished product. Essentially, it is the carving or engraving of bone, ivory, shells, wood or any other suitable material. Contrary to popular belief, the craft is not confined to engraving on whale teeth and bone, although in this form it is very common. The originators of scrimshaw decoration is unknown, although suggestions range from the Eskimos to the South Sea Islanders. However, the craft with which we are familiar today developed on board whaling ships where the equipment was already at hand: sail needles, jack knives and other metal tools; whale or walrus teeth and bones; Indian ink or lamp black; illustrations from old newspapers and plenty of leisure time. During the course of a whaling voyage, which sometimes lasted up to five years, there would be long periods of calm when the ship was waiting for a wind to take it to the whaling ground. To while away the time, sailors would occupy themselves with various shipboard crafts like rope or string work, or wood carving. They would also draw or trace pictures onto bone from whales already caught and processed. For more information see: Keenan, Annette,. "Scrimshaw" in A Companion to the Mint Collection (Sydney, 1982).