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What is Scrimshaw?

Scrimshaw is a unique art form that originated on whaling ships in the 18th century. Sailors etched intricate designs into whalebone, ivory, or shells, often filling them with ink to highlight the artwork. This maritime tradition offers a glimpse into the past, capturing the imagination with its detailed storytelling. Curious about how these sailors crafted such delicate pieces? Let's dive deeper.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

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.

Hippo teeth are used in place of elephant ivory by modern scrimshaw carvers.
Hippo teeth are used in place of elephant ivory by modern scrimshaw carvers.

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.

Antlers, which animals shed yearly, are a popular material for scrimshaw.
Antlers, which animals shed yearly, are a popular material for scrimshaw.

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.

Originally, sailors used the bones and teeth of whales for scrimshaw.
Originally, sailors used the bones and teeth of whales for scrimshaw.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is scrimshaw and how did it originate?

Scrimshaw is a form of art that originated on whaling ships in the late 18th century. Sailors would pass the time by carving intricate designs into the byproducts of their hunts, such as whalebone, teeth, and baleen. These carvings were often highlighted with ink or pigments to bring out the details. Scrimshaw pieces are considered a form of folk art and are highly valued for their historical significance and craftsmanship.

What materials are traditionally used in scrimshaw?

Traditional scrimshaw is primarily done on the ivory-like bones and teeth of marine mammals, especially those of sperm whales and walruses. Baleen, a filter-feeder system inside the mouths of baleen whales, was also a popular medium. Today, due to legal restrictions and conservation efforts, artists often use alternative materials like antler, horn, or synthetic ivory to create scrimshaw artwork.

Is scrimshaw still practiced today, and if so, how has it evolved?

Scrimshaw is still practiced today, but it has evolved significantly due to legal restrictions on the use of ivory and increased awareness of wildlife conservation. Modern scrimshanders often use sustainable and legal alternatives to ivory, such as fossilized ivory, vegetable ivory, or synthetic materials. The art form has also expanded beyond maritime themes to include a broader range of subjects and styles, reflecting contemporary interests and artistic innovation.

How can you tell if a piece of scrimshaw is authentic?

Determining the authenticity of scrimshaw involves examining the age, patina, and wear of the piece, as well as the style and skill of the carving. Authentic scrimshaw often shows signs of being handcrafted, with slight imperfections and evidence of age. Experts may also use ultraviolet light to detect modern materials or inks. Collectors often seek provenance or documentation to establish a piece's history and authenticity.

Are there any legal considerations to keep in mind when collecting scrimshaw?

Yes, there are significant legal considerations when collecting scrimshaw due to international and national laws protecting endangered species. In the United States, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act regulate the ownership and trade of scrimshaw made from certain materials. Collectors must ensure that any scrimshaw pieces they acquire are either antique (over 100 years old) or made from legally obtained and non-endangered animal materials.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a MusicalExpert editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a MusicalExpert editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

desertdunes

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.

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    • Hippo teeth are used in place of elephant ivory by modern scrimshaw carvers.
      By: Uryadnikov Sergey
      Hippo teeth are used in place of elephant ivory by modern scrimshaw carvers.
    • Antlers, which animals shed yearly, are a popular material for scrimshaw.
      By: lassedesignen
      Antlers, which animals shed yearly, are a popular material for scrimshaw.
    • Originally, sailors used the bones and teeth of whales for scrimshaw.
      By: Tlaloc Xicotencatl
      Originally, sailors used the bones and teeth of whales for scrimshaw.