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What is Scrimshaw?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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Scrimshaw refers to a type of hand made craft created by carving the teeth and bones of whales and other marine mammals. It was traditionally created by sailors during the height of whaling in the 19th century, though it may also be created by modern hobbyists. Anyone who makes this craft is called a scrimshander.

The earliest scrimshaw pieces consisted of tools for use on the ship. The abundance of whale teeth and bones on a whaling ship, combined with the significant free time of whalers, who had no work to do at night, created the perfect environment for the craft to arise. Whale bones are also a fairly easy material to work with.

Scrimshanders soon began crafting more artistic pieces, either for personal use or for sale at the market. Most pieces are simply decorative and preserve the shape of the tooth or bone, while the surface is covered with carving and lettering. The first piece of scrimshaw fitting this description dates from 1817 and offers a narrative describing where and when the whale it came from was caught. Like many old pieces, it is anonymous. Whaling and other nautical scenes, naturally, are a popular subject for this craft, though other designs are often seen as well. Scrimshaw may also take the form of tools, toys, or jewelry.

The manufacture of scrimshaw quickly tapered off as the practice of whaling declined, and the ban on commercial whaling in the 1980s heralded the end of this craft on a large scale. However, some crafters still make scrimshaw using material other than bone. Original pieces are very valuable, and many museums have collections of antique scrimshaw. The Nantucket Whaling Museum and the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, the Kendall Whaling Museum in Connecticut, and the Hull Maritime Museum in Kingston upon Hull, England all hold impressive collections of scrimshaw, but many other museums have smaller collections.

In the United States, modern scrimshaw may be made with pre-embargo ivory, which entered the country before sanctions took effect. Other popular materials include hippo ivory from hippos that have been killed for other reasons, fossilized ivory from mastodons and ancient walrus, antlers — which animals shed yearly — and nut palm or "vegetable ivory." The last type is sometimes called fakeshaw, but it is the only feasible and environmentally sound way to carry on the art form.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Musical Expert editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "

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Discussion Comments
By desertdunes — On Jan 24, 2010

While I'm glad the use of whalebones/teeth is no longer possible, the small collection of scrimshaw I've seen was very beautiful.

I'm certainly glad to hear that a decent substitute (antlers or vegetable ivory) is available, scrimshaw is a lovely art form that shouldn't be lost.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Musical Expert editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range...
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