Scrimshaw – a unique maritime art

Scrimshaw is an art form that is considered by some to be the only art form that originated in America, since the art of Scrimshaw was first practiced by sailors working on whaling ships out of New England.

Although it is generally accepted that the modern form of Scrimshaw is an original American art form that dates back over 200 years, there are accounts of Native American Eskimos / Inuit’s practicing a precursor to the style of Scrimshaw the sailors were doing as early as 100 to 200 AD.  In fact there are accounts of Eskimo artifacts being excavated from traditional hunting camp sites dating back as many as 6,000 years ago.  Eskimos used whale and walrus ivory and bone for many of their tools and utensils, such as, harpoon fore shafts, fishing net weights, needles, awls, sled runners, ice probes and even bone armor.  Centuries of being buried have given many of these artifacts a rich golden brown patina on the outside but with a little work to remove the outer layers reveals an awesome creamy colored working window suitable for Scrimshaw of the finest detail.  While it has been said the Eskimos passed this art form on to the New England sailors and whalers, it was the sailors and whalers who refined the art form and led the way to the modern more refined Scrimshaw we see and enjoy today. 

The term “Scrimshaw” was probably derived from a Dutch or English nautical slang expression meaning “to waste time.”  In other words, anything a seaman made in his off duty hours, when there was nothing else of importance to do on the ship was considered and called “Scrimshaw” maybe because the ship’s Captain thought it was foolishness to sit and scratch pictures into a whale’s tooth and to do so was a waste of ones time.  Many whaling voyages could last 3, 4, 5 years or more and several weeks or even months would pass between whale sightings. Without something to occupy their time the seamen may well have gone stir crazy in the cramped quarters and poor living conditions aboard these ships. 

Today, when people hear the word Scrimshaw, more often than not they think of the images cut or scratched into ivory or other materials to produce a picture, however, there were a number of other things that were produced aboard whaling ships that were also considered Scrimshaw.  Not all of the sailors were artistic enough to carve or do the engraving work but they might be good at working with wood so they made small wooden boxes referred to as “Ditty Boxes” which were also considered Scrimshaw.  The box may have ivory inlays and maybe the sailor would trade some of his work for a piece of Scrimshaw to fit into the top of the box. 

The ivory teeth from the Sperm Whale were the most popular for Scrimshaw engravings because they were plentiful and small enough to be stowed away in the sailor’s sea chest and since they had no commercial value, the ships Captain would hand them out at no cost to the sailors that wanted them. 

In there natural form the ivory whale’s teeth had ridges and other imperfections that had to be removed before the engraving work could be done.  The sailors removed the imperfections by first scraping them with a knife, then they would smooth the surface to be Scrimshawed with sharkskin or pumice, the last step was to polish them to a high gloss finish with a cloth. 

On the whaling ships the Scrimshaw engravings were done with a pocket knife or if the sailor/whaler was lucky he would get a discarded needle from the ships sail maker.  With the knife or needle the sailor would cut and/or scratch a picture into the polished surface.  Periodically during the engraving process the sailor would rub a pigment into the cuts and scratches to enhance the image. Since ink wasn’t readily available they would get soot from the chimney of the ships cooking stove, or they would grind up gun powder with a little whale oil.  The pigment rubbed into the cuts and scratches made the picture come to life.  A broad range of subjects were depicted on the whale teeth but the most common were portraits of the ship they were sailing on and maybe the ship’s captain. There were also portraits of wives or sweethearts back home, all kinds of sea creatures, mermaids and more.

Even before the decline of the whaling industry, the art of Scrimshaw started moving inland.  Long before the invention and introduction of the modern cartridge firearms, muzzle loading, black powder firearms were used and everyone that carried a rifle or hand gun also carried a powder horn fashioned from a cow’s horn which they used to carry the black powder needed to load and fire their gun.  From the French and Indian wars to the Revolutionary War, then on through the Civil war all of the soldiers carried black powder firearms and a powder horn.  Like the whalers and their Whale’s teeth, when the soldiers found themselves sitting idle in an encampment between battles they would smooth and polish their powder horns and engrave images into them, however, the scenes they engraved were not of ships and other whaling scenes, they were often battle scenes and maps showing where battles had been fought. 

With the 1970 restrictions on whale’s teeth, then the 1989 restrictions on the import and export of elephant ivory, collectors and Scrimshanders alike were wondering if the art of Scrimshaw would finally meet its demise.  Are the Scrimshanders of today the last generation of Scrimshaw artists, will future generations view Scrimshaw as a lost art of America’s past?  Fortunately for the time being there are a variety of other types of ivory that Scrimshanders have found to be very suitable for their work.  Probably the most sought after and readily available are the fossilized ivories from the wooly mammoth and mastodon, these great beasts are prehistoric cousins of today’s elephants; they have been extinct for over 10,000 years so using ivory from them certainly doesn’t pose a threat to their survival.  Some other material Scrimshanders like to scratch on are hippo tusk, warthog ivory, buffalo horn, giraffe bone, mother of pearl, and camel bone. These animals are not endangered nor will they be in the foreseeable future.

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