The Value of Scrimshaw Soars
Remember me when far away
From thee on the stormy sea.
For whatever course I'm steering
My heart still points to thee.
And so the inscription reads on a
scrimshaw box made by a whaleman for his wife in the 1830s. Whalemen
decorated busks for their sweetheart’s bodice, carved and decorated
pie crimpers, inspired by vision of homemade pies, and engraved sperm
whale teeth with whatever captured their imagination. Scrimshaw became
the pastime of lonely and often dispirited seamen far from home. Today,
it’s highly prized by collectors, who often must pay exorbitant
prices for period pieces.
Though scrimshaw is one of America’s
earliest folk arts, the origin of the name lies in controversy. Some
believe it came from "scrimp," to economize, and "shaw,"
to sand or saw. Others believe the word itself comes from British slang,
"scrimshanker," meaning a time waster. To the contrary,
scrimshanding was a productive use of a whaleman’s time. Originally,
it referred to the production of sailors' hand-tools and practical
implements, such as seam rubbers, fids, belaying pins, and hole pins.
But it eventually came to mean any object carved, etched or fabricated
by whalemen at sea. Beginning in the late 1820s, whaling crewmen
frequently made tools and fittings out of bone and ivory for use aboard
ship, which captains referred to as scrimshaw in their journals.
Even though people created scrimshaw
since the Revolutionary War, it didn’t become widely recognized as a
collectible until President John F. Kennedy, an enthusiastic collector,
brought Scrimshaw to the public eye.
The earliest known works of incised
pictorial scrimshaw date from as early as 1817. Edward Burdett
(1805-1833), the first known American scrimshaw artist, and one of the
best, began scrimshandering around 1824. Scrimshaw of these early
whalemen, or scrimshanders as they were known, featured nautical designs–whales,
wharf scenes, battles at sea. Although most whalemen created scrimshaw
as homecoming presents for loved ones, some sold their work in a foreign
ports, if they needed cash.
Though the 1830's and 1840's was the
golden age of pictorial scrimshaw, the genre continued even during the
decline of the whaling industry into last part of the 19th
Century. By 1870, N. S. Finney, a native of Plymouth, Massachusetts, who
had been a whaleman in the 1840's, set himself up in San Francisco and
engraved walrus tusks on commission, becoming the first person to take
scrimshandering professional. In most cases, it remained a shipboard
pastime that provided welcome relief from the alternating hard labor and
abject boredom of a whaling voyage.
Scrimshanders used whale and walrus ivory
and bone as the basis for their craft. Both tended to dry out over time,
becoming brittle, so it was best for them to incise while the material
was fresh and still permeated with its natural moisture and oils.
Whalemen's journals mention soaking teeth in brine to soften them and
preserve their suppleness if they couldn’t be worked on immediately.
To prepare the surface for incising, scrimshanders removed the natural
ridges and imperfections by scraping with a knife, then sawed off the
rough, irregular root end of the tooth or tusk to form a base. They then
smoothed the surface with sharkskin or pumice, then burnished with it
with a cloth. To incise their designs, whalemen commonly used
jackknives, though sometimes they employed sail needles.
Where did they get the inspiration for
their drawings? While they often traced illustrations in periodicals and
books such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Leslie’s
Illustrated, they also drew inspiration from the Bible. But, mostly,
they drew what they knew best--rowing a whaleboat across a restless
ocean and encountering a ferocious sperm whale. They also employed
catchwords and phrases like "greasy luck to whalers" or
"a dead whale" or "a stove boat."
Scrimshanders had no rules and few
precedents to govern their choice of subject matter, but most favored
portraits, patriotic subjects, ship portraits, whaling scenes, naval
engagements, and domestic vignettes. Nostalgic pictures of their own
houses often bore a caption like "Home, sweet home." One
whale's tooth displays, on one side, a picture of a respectably attired
wife at home; on the other side an exotic South Sea girl in sarong. The
caption: "To our Wives and Sweethearts. May they never meet."
To copy an illustration, the scrimshander
would lay it over the surface of the ivory or bone, perhaps wetting the
paper to make it more pliant, and prick through it with a sailmaker's
needle, leaving a pattern of dots in the polished surface that could be
connected to form a facsimile of the printed original. Afterwards, he’d
rub soot, lampblack or other pigments mixed with whale-oil over the
lines, then wipe it away, leaving the pigment only in the fine lines.
For colored work, a whaleman might use tobacco juice, colored inks, or
In his book The Yankee Whaler,
Clifford Ashley describes 60 items he considered scrimshaw, ranging from
bird cages and butter spreaders to picture frames and pipe tampers. Some
of the more common scrimshaw objects included canes; corset busks and
stays, dominoes, doorknobs, pastry crimpers (also known as jagging
wheels), rolling pins, and rings and bracelets.
Ditty boxes could be extremely simple or
highly ornate, made entirely of baleen or bone, or a combination of
materials and inlays, sometimes adorned with a carved human or animal
Among the most elaborate creations were
"architectural" forms–pocket watch stands, usually shaped like
miniature "grandfather" clocks, a nighttime resting place for
dad's gold timepiece. Sewing boxes, typically built of wood or bone,
often lavishly fitted with drawers, spools for thread, pincushions, and
other accessories, were characteristically ornately decorated with
inlay, finials, fobs, and fixtures of marine ivory, sea shell, tortoise
shell, and silver. A skeletal-bone and or wood-and-bone birdcage could
consume countless months of work at sea. Banjos and violins with ivory
and bone fittings were also in the inventory of the musically inclined
and manually skilled. A yarn winder, known as a "swift," was
probably the most complicated form of scrimshaw.
Museums where you can see examples of
Nantucket Whaling Museum - Nantucket, Mass.
New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Mass.
Salt Pond Visitors Center - Cape Cod National Seashore, Mass.
Peabody Essex Museum - Salem, Mass.
The Whaling Museum at Cold Spring Harbor - Long Island, New York.
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