My first memory of being exposed to scrimshaw was when at fourteen years old, or so, my father took me to an exhibit of it at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. I fell in love with the art form on the spot. Of all Americana ephemera, the nautical realm is probably the one i find most fascinating – and whale tooth engraving, scrimshaw, is a perfect example of why. Intricately crafted and delicate, yet impossible to separate from the manly act of hunting the largest animals on the planet, scrimshaw retains and encapsulates everything that makes a romanticized life at sea an inviting one.
The true origin of the word scrimshaw is unknown, although one theory claims that it derives from nautical slang meaning "to waste one's time." The employment of carving and engraving whale teeth originally emerged in the form of canes, yarn winders, birdcages and all kind of tools that sailors would forge from the excess bones of the whales they harvested, and emerged as an art form secondarily when sailors would carve designs in their spare time in the early 1800s. Unfortunately, this act created a market for whale teeth, and as a consequence, the harvesting of whales specifically for their teeth became extremely profitable and rampant. Sperm whales were hunted until their species nearly collapsed, and today, scrimshaw is a form of contraband. Nonetheless, antique scrimshaw is an amazing slice of American whaling heritage.
I love the idea of using scrimshaw in an interior and would at every possible opportunity. Having only ever had one client who had actual pieces of scrimshaw I can tell you that the opportunity does not present itself nearly often enough. At any rate I wanted to share some of my favourite images of some pretty amazing pieces, please enjoy. And here is a little whaling song to listen to as you have a look at everything.
The engraved designs on whale teeth, bone, tusk or shell - was the product of boredom on the voyages that could last for years. These beautiful objects express homesickness, longing and adventure.
Jagging wheels (pie crimpers) are among the most common scrimshaw items carved by American whalemen in the 19th century. They were useful, as well as decorative kitchen implements. The fluted wheel was used to cut dough or seal the top of a pie crust to the sides before baking. This example’s shaft is in the form of a snake or sea serpent, with a tongue in the shape of a three-tine fork. The fork was used to decorate or poke holes in the upper pie crust to vent the steam created by baking.
This is just an amazing piece.
Any Moby Dick fans out there? Well here is a wonderful depiction of Queequeg.
The lovely handle of a scrimshaw cane.
I just love this collection. The bottom piece has a cribbage board carved into it.
JFK is probably one of the best known collectors of scrimshaw and always had pieces on the Resolute Desk (FYI: the desk is made from remnants of the Resolute warship which was salvaged from the Arctic by a whaling vessel in 1885). In 1962 Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned a large whale tooth to be polished and scrimshawed by scrimshander Milton Delano for a Christmas gift to the President. The tooth has the Presidential seal scrimshawed on the whale tooth. JFK thought so much of the tooth that Jacqueline Kennedy buried him with the tooth in his casket.
A piece from JFK's collection.
And another one.
From the B.R. Judge Collection:
For anyone interested in learning a bit more about JFK's scrimshaw collection
John F. Kennedy Scrimshaw Collector is an absolute must.
If you are interested in scrimshaw in general Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders
is an absolutely wonderful resource.
I only just came across this book while putting this post together and am sure
Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved would be a fabulous addition to any
book collection...I ordered one immediately.
So there you have it, my little tribute to a beautiful and historical aspect of a truly American art form.