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Scrimshaw is the name given to scrollwork, engravings, and carvings done in bone or ivory. Typically it refers to the handiwork created by whalers made from the byproducts of harvesting marine mammals. It is most commonly made out of the bones and teeth of sperm whales, the baleen of other whales, and the tusks of walruses. It takes the form of elaborate engravings in the form of pictures and lettering on the surface of the bone or tooth, with the engraving highlighted using a pigment, or, less often, small sculptures made from the same material. However the latter really fall into the categories of ivory carving, for all carved teeth and tusks, or bone carving. The making of scrimshaw began on whaling ships between 1745 to 1759 on the Pacific Ocean, and survived until the ban on commercial whaling. The practice survives as a hobby and as a trade for commercial artisans. A maker of scrimshaw is known as a scrimshander. The etymology is uncertain, but there have been several proposals.
Scrimshaw is derived from the practice of sailors on whaling ships creating common tools, where the byproducts of whales were readily available. The term originally referred to the making of these tools, only later referring to works of art created by whalers in their spare time. Whale bone was ideally suited for the task, as it is easy to work and was plentiful.
The development of scrimshaw took off after the market for whale teeth, which were sought by Chinese traders for use in the Pacific Islands (for example the Fijian market for tabua), was flooded with teeth after a narrative by an American sailor, Captain David Porter, revealed both the market and the source of the teeth. Around this time is the earliest authenticated pictorial piece of scrimshaw (1817). The tooth was inscribed with the following This is the tooth of a sperm whale that was caught near the Galapagos islands by the crew of the ship Adam [of London], and made 100 barrels of oil in the year 1817.
Other sea animal ivories were also used as alternatives for rarer whale teeth. Walrus tusks, for example, may have been acquired in trade from indigenous walrus hunters.
Scrimshaw essentially was a leisure activity for whalers. Because the work of whaling was very dangerous at the best of times, whalers were unable to work at night. This gave them a great deal more free time than other sailors. A lot of scrimshaw was never signed and a great many of the pieces are anonymous. Early scrimshaw was done with crude sailing needles, and the movement of the ship, as well as the skill of the artist, produced drawings of varying levels of detail and artistry. Originally, candle black, soot or tobacco juice would have been used to bring the etched design into view. Also ink was used that the sailors would bring on before the voyage. Today's artists use finer tools in various sizes, mostly borrowed from the dental industry. Some scrimshanders ink their work with more than one color, and restrained polychromed examples of this art are now popular.
Originating in an era when sperm whales were initially plentiful only to be hunted to near collapse, scrimshaw no longer is an artform utilizing an easily renewable animal resource, but one that is susceptible to contraband. Now, the Endangered Species Act and international conventions restrict the harvest and sale of ivory to try to reverse the scarcity of ivory-bearing animals.
Scrimshanders and collectors acquire legal whale teeth and marine tusks through estate sales, auctions and antique dealers. To avoid illegal ivory, collectors and artists check provenance and deal only with other established and reputable dealers. Scrimshaw that is found to have been illegally sourced may be seized by customs officials worldwide, dramatically loses value and is very hard to re-sell, as the limited channels through which collectible scrimshaw passes serves as a check on unscrupulous persons. As with any other fine art form, it is usually possible for experienced museums, auction houses or other experts to perceive a fake.
Detail on a piece in the Smithsonian Museum collection
Detail on a piece in the Horta (Azores) Scrimshaw Museum
Scrimshaw by Leo J. Meyer
Scrimshaw cribbage board at The Mariners' Museum
Scrimshaw can also be three-dimensional artifacts that are hand carved by the scrimshander. They carved useful tools such as a jagging wheel. The jagging wheel is a multi-purpose tool used to pierce and trim a pie crust. Corset busks were carved from bone or ivory.
Scrimshaw is being created today still using fossilized ivories, recycled teeth, bones, plastic and more. Some are done by hand and many by laser programed machines.
Ivory is a fragile medium; many 19th century pieces were preserved because they were kept in a barrel of oil onboard ship. Gary Kiracofe, a scrimshander in Nantucket, MA, advises collectors that if a piece looks dry, one should fill the center of the tooth with unscented baby oil and allow it to remain until as much oil as possible is soaked into the microscopic pores of the ivory. Clear paste wax or high-end car wax will seal the surface after oiling. Bone items are even more fragile (more fibrous and porous) and may be treated the same way - with a light clear mineral oil. Organic oils are inadvisable, as they will eventually hasten discoloration, as on old piano keys subjected to the natural oils in one's hands.
Professional conservators of art and historic artifacts will generally recommend against applying any type of dressing (like oil or wax) to organic objects such as whale ivory. Sensible choices regarding storage and display will preserve whale ivory best: keep out of direct sunlight, handle with cotton gloves or freshly washed hands, and avoid keeping in places with shifting humidity and temperature. Coating organic objects can induce eventual cracking.
Whale teeth and bones were a highly variable medium, used to produce both practical pieces, such as hand tools, toys and kitchen utensils, and highly decorative pieces, which were purely ornamental. The designs on the pieces varied greatly as well, though they often had whaling scenes on them. For example Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick, refers to "lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies' busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other skrimshander articles". Most engravings were adapted from books and papers.
Most of the original scrimshaw created by whalers is currently held by museums. Museums with significant collections include:
Other images of scrimshaw can be found at:
Ripleys' Museum Niagara Falls - Scrimshaw piano key art Ripley's Museum Baltimore - Scrimshaw piano key art DaVinci exhibit - world travelling exhibit - Scrimshaw piano key art
While scrimshaw is rarely done on whale bone these days, it is still practiced by a few artists. Common modern materials are micarta, ivory (elephant, fossil, walrus), hippo tusk, warthog ivory, buffalo horn, giraffe bone, mother of pearl, and camel bone. Modern scrimshaw typically retains the nautical themes of historical scrimshaw, but can also go well outside of the traditional.
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