Scrimshaw of an American Military Officer

By: Carly Hill, Staff Writer • Jun 29, 2012 • 0 Comments

Today, we'll focus on this one-of-a-kind 19th century scrimshawed whale's tooth, circa 1845.

The art of Scrimshaw is considered by some to be the only art form that originated in America, because it was first found being done by sailors working on whaling ships right outside of New England.  

Although the origins of the words "Scrimshaw" aren't entirely known, the word probably came from the Dutch or English nautical slang expression that means "to waste time."  Anything that was made by a seaman when he was off duty, which had no importance or nothing to do with the ship, was considered "Scrimshaw."  However, the word is usually understood to mean "a carving or engraving into a whale's tooth or another kind of ivory."

Of course, not every sailor was an artist, so the sailors who weren't as artistically inclined would make small wooden boxes that they called "Ditty Boxes."  These boxes are also considered Scrimshaw.

Sailors would use pocket knives and discarded needles from the ship's sail maker to create Scrimshaw.  They'd use their knife or needle to scratch a picture into the polished surface of the tooth.  Pigment would be periodically rubbed into the cuts.  Since ink was hard to come by, they'd usually use gunpowder mixed with whale oil.  After the tooth was carved, the sailor would smooth the surface of the tooth with shark's skin or pumice, and then they'd polish it with a cloth.

Scrimshaw's popularity declined in the end of the 1800s as gas products were discovered and whale oil wasn't as much of a need.  Scrimshaw didn't become popular again until the 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy revealed that he was a collector of Scrimshaw.  But, even then, carving sperm whale's teeth was still something that didn't happen much since whales and other marine animals were put on the endangered species list in 1970.  

Pictured above is a whale's tooth displaying a carving of an American Military officer wearing a uniform from the late 1840s with an American Flag or banner to his side.  On the reverse side, there is a garden bench with a flower pot and leafy vines.  This unique piece is available from Kahn Fine Antiques and Works of Art right here.

Many of these engravings can be found in African Elephant ivory which we learned about in last week's blog. There is a lot of confusion about the 1989 ban on ivory.  But, luckily this ban doesn't mean that its illegal to buy ivory from another country.  Visit Saturday's blog to learn about the ban, the restrictions, and the law.

Also, check back often to see photos and descriptions of some of our featured militaria. We'll be planted in the militaria section of our Latique collection this week, so feel free to click here and explore our collection of firearms, swords, and other militaria.

See more examples of Scrimshaw.