World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article


Article Id: WHEBN0001136223
Reproduction Date:

Title: Scrimshaw  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Sperm whale, Bone carving, Chet Morton, Decorative arts, New Bedford Whaling Museum
Collection: Art Media, Carving, Engraving, Ivory Works of Art, Whale Products, Whaling
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


A small collection of scrimshaw

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 and 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.[1] The word first appeared in print in the early 19th century, but the etymology is uncertain.[2]


  • History and materials 1
  • Care and preservation 2
  • Design 3
  • Collections 4
  • Modern scrimshaw 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

History and materials

Carved whale bone whistle dated 1821. 8 cm long. Belonged to a 'Peeler' in the Metropolitan Police Service in London.
Pair of walrus tusks depicting a sailor and a woman. Rhode Island or Connecticut, circa 1900
Closeup of a sailor
Closeup of a woman

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 widespread carving of scrimshaw became possible after the 1815 publication of the journal of U.S. Navy Captain David Porter exposed both the market and the source of the whale teeth, causing a surplus of whale teeth that greatly diminished their value and made them available as a material for ordinary seamen.[3] Around this time is the earliest authenticated pictorial piece of sperm whale scrimshaw (1817). The tooth was inscribed: "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."[4]

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.

  • Though there are sources of ivory that are sanctioned and legal, poachers in Africa and other continents where elephants are an endangered species still kill for their ivory, Elephant ivory has been regulated since 1976 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and selling African ivory has been prohibited since 1989.
  • 19th and 20th century scrimshaw, scrimshaw crafted before 1989 (elephant) or before 1973 (sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory etc.) is legal. It is prohibited after that year for commercial import in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  • Additionally, walrus tusks bearing the Alaska State walrus ivory registration tag, and post-law walrus ivory that has been carved or scrimshawed by a native Alaskan Indian (Eskimo), is legally available.
  • Finally, any ivory considered ancient, such as 10,000 to 40,000 year old mammoth ivory, is completely unrestricted in its sale or possession.

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.

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.

Care and preservation

  • Nantucket Historical Association Artifacts Online database

External links

  • Stevens, Jim (2008). Scrimshaw Techniques, History, Gallery, Equipment, Types of Ivory, Alternative Materials, Cutting, Sanding, Polishing, Creating Images, Inlays and Basing, Scrimshaw Techniques and Inking, Pub: Schiffer Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7643-2831-2
  • Stevens, Jim (2008). Advanced Scrimshaw Techniques, Types of Ivory, Alternative Materials, Color Techniques, Power Scrimshaw, Carving, Imitations and Fakes, Repair, Conservation, Restoration, Glossary, Pub: Schiffer Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7643-3017-9
  • Stevens, Jim (2010). Powder Horns: Fabrication & Decoration, Powder horn working, shaping, decorating, and finishing techniques. Historic and modern tools illustrate inlays, engrailing, and how to scrimshaw powder horns. Pub: Schiffer Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7643-3017-9
  • Halat, Eva (2006). Contemporary Scrimshaw. Verlag Angelika Hörnig.  
Further reading
  1. ^ "scrimshander". 2015. Retrieved 2015-08-26. 
  2. ^ Morris, Evan (April 19, 2010). "Scrimshaw, A long time to be gone". The Word Detective. Retrieved 2015-08-26.  And see Stephen Goranson's 2009 post to the American Dialect Society, "scrimshaw: proposed etymology".
  3. ^ Wertkin, Gerard C. (2004). Encyclopedia of American Folk Art. Routledge. p. 530.  
  4. ^ Perrin, William F.; Wursig, Bernd; Thewissen, J.G.M. 'Hans', eds. (2009). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press. p. 995.  
  5. ^  
  6. ^ "Scrimshaw Collection at the Scott Polar Research Institute". University of Cambridge. Retrieved 2015-08-26. 


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.

Example of modern scrimshaw by artist Edmund Davidson

Modern scrimshaw

Detail on a piece in the Smithsonian Museum collection 
Sperm whale jawbone and teeth in the collection of the Scrimshaw Museum in Horta, Azores 
Detail on a piece in the Horta Scrimshaw Museum 
Scrimshaw cribbage board at The Mariners' Museum 
  • The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
  • Ripley's Museum Niagara Falls – Scrimshaw piano key art
  • Ripley's Museum Baltimore – Scrimshaw piano key art
  • DaVinci exhibit – world travelling exhibit – Scrimshaw piano key art

Other images of scrimshaw can be found at:

Most of the original scrimshaw created by whalers is currently held by museums. Museums with significant collections include:


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".[5] Most engravings were adapted from books and papers.

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.