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The Value of Scrimshaw Soars
by Bob Brooke

A rare colored piece of scrimshaw art.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.

Detail of a whale's tooth.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 vegetable dyes.

A whale's tooth with a scrimshaw design.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 figure.

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 scrimshaw:
Kendall Whaling Museum - Sharon, Mass.
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.

To read more articles by Bob Brooke, please visit his Web site.

CARING FOR YOUR COLLECTIONS
An occasional feature about caring for your antiques and collectibles.

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