Scrimshaws are pieces of bone or ivory that have been elaborately carved or engraved, with the engraving highlighted using a pigment such as candle black, soot or tobacco juice and later ink. These mostly refer to the carvings done by whalers on the bones and teeth of the whales that they were catching. However, other sea animal ivories were also used such as walrus tusks.
A pair of 19th Century scrimshaw whale's teeth, the faces engraved with a view of the "Eddystone Lighthouse", one in a calm sea and one with huge wave engulfing the lighthouse and both a small ship in a becalmed sea to reverse, each 5.5ins high
Originally, Scrimshaw referred to the tools that were created out of this readily available material and then later it became synonymous with the works of art that the whalers would create in their free time. Due to the dangerous nature of whaling, whalers did not work at night giving them more free time than ordinary sailors to carve scrimshaws. Whale bone and teeth were ideally suited to be carved and fashioned into tools due to it being easy to work with and readily available. The practice of making Scrimshaws began on whaling ships in the Pacific Ocean between 1745 – 1759 and was continued up until the ban on commercial whaling.
The whalers that created Scrimshaws were known as Scrimshander’s and the widespread manufacture of scrimshaws became possible in 1815 after the publication of a US Navy Sea Captains journal. This exposed the market and source of whale teeth which greatly diminished their value making them available for ordinary seamen. The earliest authenticated scrimshaw was carved in 1817 and 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”. The fact that the scrimshaw was signed is in itself unusual as the majority of the pieces are anonymous. There is a discrepancy between the quality of pieces being produced due to numerous factors including; the quality of sailing needle available to carve, the movement of the ship as well as the artists skill.
19th Century scrimshaw whale's tooth, the top face engraved with a battle scene between two ships of the line, the reverse showing a ship of the line off coast with fort, within stylised bandings, 7.25ins overall
While scrimshaw is rarely done on whale bone these days, it is still practiced by a few artists. Common modern materials include; 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.
Modern day scrimshaw techniques. Artisans still produce these items today, just not on endangered species.
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