Let’s talk…Scrimshaw May 20 2016 6 Comments

The term “scrimshaw” was coined in 18th Century America aboard a whaling vessel. Its linguistic roots are unknown, but thought to be derived from a Dutch or English or nautical word. The general understanding of the word is “to waste time”. The term scrimshaw also represents more than the carved sperm whale teeth that have become the most recognizable and perhaps most desirable form of scrimshaw, today. All handy crafts (from whale bone corsets busks to carved wood boxes) that were created by sailors on whaling ships in 18th Century America were considered scrimshaw.

The most recognized form of scrimshaw is the art of carving images into some form of ivory or bone, in most instances and perhaps most popularly used were sperm whale teeth. Due to the large supply and the lack of commercial value of the teeth, sailors simply had to ask for one, and were not often charged a fee for it. The teeth then had to be smoothed of all ridges and imperfections prior to carving. The first layer of imperfections was almost always scraped away with a knife, and then the scrimshanders would use sharkskin or pumice to smooth the surface further. Finally, the teeth would be buffed with a soft cloth to achieve a high glossy finish.

The tool of choice was a needle, but if the sailor could not lay his hands on one, his trusty pocketknife would do the trick. Using his tools the sailor would scratch and/or carve an image into the polished tooth. As the image began to take shape the sailor would rub pigment into the already cut/etched surface, revealing his design. Since ink was not easy to come by, sailors would use things like soot or ground gunpowder mixed with whale oil to create pigment. General themes included sweethearts from home as well as life at sea, like whaling ships dashing across the waves or Mermaids sunbathing on rocks.

It is important to note that the term or technique has grown to include Eskimo Ivory carvings. There are Eskimo ivory carving that pre and post-date the whaleman’s scrimshaw, which may indicate simultaneous development this art form. It is also hypothesized that the Eskimos borrowed this style of art from Russian traders that were in eastern Siberia as early as the 17th century (Ray, 99). The theory is that the Russians were trading with the Native Alaskans even before the first explorers made it to Alaska’s coasts. However, nothing as graphically-advanced as the whaleman scrimshander’s art would be seen from the Eskimos until after 1835 when the first Whaleman traveled to the islands of Alaska.

Through creative exchange the Whalemen received access to new materials, like mammoth and walrus tusks as well as a revived cultural interested in scrimshaw art. The Eskimos gained new ideas of items, like cribbage boards, pipes, cane handles, and napkin rings, to be created for commercial sale. It was a win-win situation.

One of the most well known Eskimo carvers is Happy Jack, originally named Angokwazhuk. He hailed from Diomede Island and was convinced to accompany Captain Hartson Bodfish on a journey to San Francisco in 1892. During this journey he acquired the new name as well as “new ideas that added to his own talent in ivory carving.” (Flayderman, 247). Through his and other Eskimo carvers success and the increase in visitors to Alaska during the Alaskan Gold Rush there was a surge in the collection of Scrimshaw and Eskimo carving which made it an important part of the Eskimos’ livelihood.

As whaling faded so did the scrimshaw trade by the turn of the 19th century most sailors had moved on to other jobs and life in general had changed. However, in the 1960’s President John F. Kennedy’s collection created a revival in the creation and collection of this unique art. This revived interested has continued and evolved due to restrictions on the buying and selling of ivory. To learn more about scrimshaw we suggest looking at our resources as well as the New Bedford Whaling Museum site.

New Bedford Whaling Museum, located in Bedford, Massachusetts, has a Scrimshaw Weekend every year dedicated to “the indigenous shipboard art of whalers during the ‘Age of Sail.’” It has several events through out the weekend that you can choose to attend or purchase a weekend pass for all the festivities.

Resources for this blog include:

A Legacy of Artic Art by Dorothy Jean Ray

Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders Whales and Whalemen by E. Norman Flayderman

“This History of Scrimshaw” from Hops Scrimshaw http://www.hopscrimshaw.com/about/scrimhistory.htm

The images used in this article are items that are currently for sale on our website. To see more scrimshaw items please visit our Eskimo collection