The word scrimshaw evokes the visuals and feelings of being out on the wide-open sea. When imagining sailors from long ago, it is easy to picture the water smacking against the side of their ship as the crew hauls in loads of fish while throwing around nautical slang like flotsam, jetsam, Flemish coil, or burgoo. The term scrimshaw fits nicely in the nautical vernacular.
You don't have to be a sailor, surfer, or live anywhere near the beach to respect and appreciate all the ocean has to offer. 71% of the Earth is covered in water, and nearly 97% of that water is found in oceans. Ocean water and the life that it supports play an integral role in our daily lives, whether we realize it or not.
What is Scrimshaw?
Often referred to as the original nautical artform, scrimshaw was an innovative outlet for maritime sailors to illustrate and record their experiences on easily accessible objects. The roots of the term scrimshaw are unclear; there is an air of mystery surrounding the origin of this name bestowed on such a unique art form.
The first instance of the word scrimshaw in print dates back to 1825, and for a century included additional spelling variants such as:
Theories surrounding the creation of the name scrimshaw cover everything from deriving its moniker from a military term of the same name to originating from the French word "eskermisseour," which means "fencer." Scrimshaw is a popular surname in England, meaning there is a high likelihood it was named after a long-forgotten whaler whose legacy continues to live on through modern-day scrimshaw.
While there might be a cloud of mystery surrounding the name, the art form itself is easily identifiable due to specialized characteristics that set it apart. Art has long served as a medium for communication and documentation throughout history.
Is Scrimshaw Illegal?
The answer is no, but also yes, depending on when it was created. When the art of scrimshaw originated, sperm whales were plentiful in the oceans. However, due to over-hunting and no regulations, they quickly became endangered. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 aims to bring back animals on the brink of extinction. One of the actions it took was to restrict the sale and harvesting of ivory.
Scrimshaw produced using Elephant ivory before 1989 is legal. Scrimshaw produced using sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory, or any other ivory before 1973 is legal. Scrimshaw produced after those dates on ivory is prohibited from being imported into the United States. Legal whale teeth and animal tusks can be acquired through auctions, antique dealers, estate sales, or on the beach.
Modern Scrimshaw Canvas Choices
- Warthog Tusks
- Giraffe Bones
- Discarded Bones and Cartilage from Whales
- Hippo Tusks
- Buffalo Horns
What Tools Are Used to Make Scrimshaw?
Sailors initially used basic tools to carve their scrimshaw designs. In addition to their artistic abilities, they also had to work with the constant movement of the ship. As a result, some sailors began bringing their own ink onto the ship for their scrimshaw work. However, most sailors used candle soot or tobacco to complete their designs.
Contemporary artists use a process of etching and carving maritime designs into their choice of canvas, then filling the carved design with black ink. Artists and explorers still use the art of scrimshaw to depict the adventures and animals they encounter while at sea. It is a timeless method of bringing the world around us to life in formats we can carry with us.
Artists inspired by the water, its animals, and the nautical way of life bring that same joy and beauty into the homes of those who spend their days in the ocean and those who cannot experience it on a regular basis. Scrimshaw is the perfect artistic representation of ocean life. Maritime-themed art carved into relics from the sea is a genuinely inspiring artform.
5 Scrimshaw Pieces Perfect for the Modern-Day Nautical Enthusiast
It doesn’t matter if you are shopping for loved ones during the holidays or for yourself; scrimshaw gifts are always the perfect choice. Scrimshaw also makes excellent collector items. The ocean never goes out of style, and neither does scrimshaw. It’s an art form that is meticulously crafted onto everyday, purposeful objects. The canvas choices allow you to project your love and appreciation for maritime and nautical culture in your daily life.
- Letter Openers
- Magnifying Glass
- Cribbage Boards
Scrimshaw Letter Opener
Letter openers, sometimes referred to as paper knives, have been around since the 1700s. In the mid-1800s, the postal service announced that mailing letters inside envelopes would have lower postage rates than without an envelope. As a result of the lower postage rates, envelopes began being mass-produced to keep up with demand. At the same time, there was an increased demand for letter openers.
Prior to the mid-1800s receiving a letter was a rare treat that not everyone could experience. With the significantly lower rates and mass production of envelopes, it became a regular part of life for most people. The affordability of sending and receiving mail required many Americans to invest in a letter opener.
Today, receiving snail mail can either be something you dread or look forward to, depending on what’s in your mailbox. Whether you love receiving mail or not, no one needs to add a papercut to their laundry list. Letter openers add a fun touch to your home or home office. These scrimshaw-etched letter openers by father and son duo Doug and Derick Fine are a beautiful way to share your love for the ocean.
Our Favorite Scrimshaw Letter Openers
It may surprise you to discover that shirt cufflinks date back to the 13th century. At the time, the cuffs of shirts were held together with ribbons or any string-like object the wearer could find. It wasn't until the 17th century that what we consider cufflinks today emerged on the market.
In 1876 George Krementz decided to take the machines and processes used to make bullets to develop a method for mass-producing cufflinks. This was an exciting and profitable development for the entire industry. However, what sets our scrimshaw cufflinks apart is their individuality. Local Maui artist Doug Fine hand-carves each set of cufflinks to create a beautiful and meaningful design.
Top Scrimshaw Cufflink Options
Today, while available to the masses, cufflinks are still viewed as an indicator of high fashion. Many men wear cufflinks to weddings or special occasions, but incorporating cufflinks into everyday work and date-night attire has become the trend in recent years. If you are new to the cufflink game, rest easy because putting on cufflinks is a simple process.
Scrimshaw Magnifying Glass
Scrimshaw is rich in history, and if you can't tell already, all the pieces used to display scrimshaw artwork are just as historically packed. The magnifying glass is no exception. While at first glance it appears to be a piece of glass in an ornate casing, the science behind the discovery of the magnifying glass is fascinating.
Magnifying glasses use the technology of a convex lens to form a magnified version of an image. The concept was first laid out in “The Book of Optics” by Ibn al-Haytham circa the year 1027. Roger Bacon, a Franciscan friar, took his knowledge of the convex lens and developed the first magnifying glass.
If you currently wear contact lenses or glasses to experience the world around you, you can thank Roger Bacon for that. The intent behind the magnifying glass was to serve as a primitive version of spectacles. The primary purpose of its development was to help aid scholars with failing eyesight in their research endeavors.
Products That Use Convex Lenses
- Magnifying Glasses
- Contact Lenses
- Reading Glasses
The most notable use of a magnifying glass that propelled the tool into the pop-culture spotlight was its use by none other than Sherlock Holmes. At the time of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic writing, the technology available was magnifying glasses and microscopes, both of which use a convex lens. Our favorite scrimshaw and wood-accented magnifying glass is a beautiful piece that would make both Sherlock Holmes and Roger Bacon proud.
Scrimshaw Zippo Lighters
The year was 1932, and George G. Blaisdell was frustrated watching his friend attempt to use a cumbersome but popular Australian-style lighter. While the size was bulky and the necessary two-handed design made using it difficult, the chimney allowed the flame to resist the wind. With this information, Blaisdell created a more streamlined, one-handed design that still featured the innovative chimney.
The name Zippo results from George Blaisdell really liking the word "zipper" and wanting to give his product a similar name with a more modern sound. As a result, Zippo lighters have developed an almost cult-like following, with a near-mint-condition 1933 Zippo lighter selling for $37,000 in 2007.
If you are looking to light up your life, you can do so in style without breaking the bank. Local Hawaiian artist Doug Fine has created beautifully unique hand-scrimshawed Zippo lighters with various nautical designs. Zippos are American-made lighters of the highest quality, and when paired with Dough Fine's immaculate scrimshaw skills, they become beautiful, functional tools.
Best 3 Scrimshaw Zippo Lighters
Scrimshaw-Style Cribbage Board
Cribbage is one of the few games that is just as much about strategy as it is about luck. Cribbage originated in England in the 17th century but quickly made its way to North America when English settlers set up their colonies. Most historians believe soldier and poet Sir John Suckling is the inventor of this fun family game.
With a cribbage board and a deck of cards, you and your family or group of friends can delve into a world of skunks, pegs, and muggins. And if none of those words make sense to you, that's ok. With over ten million players in the United States alone, if you are willing to take some time to learn the strategies and skills, you will have no issues finding a crew to play cribbage with.
Cribbage is the perfect game for traveling, taking on camping trips, family game nights, and anytime you want to spend time bonding with those you love. Scrimshander Linda Layden has thoughtfully crafted seven individual cribbage board styles. Instead of carving and filling with ink, as in typical scrimshaw work, Layden cast her original designs on resin for these one-of-a-kind cribbage boards.
3 Favorite Scrimshaw-Style Cribbage Boards
How To Tell If Scrimshaw is Real or Fake
While all of our scrimshaw is authentic and real, it can be hard to determine if other scrimshaw is real or fake. The hot pin test is the easiest test for determining if scrimshaw was crafted on real ivory.
Heat a pin until it turns red, then touch the pin to a piece of the ivory that isn't noticeable. It is real ivory if it scorches the surfaces and smells like bone. Ivory will also have growth lines, similar to the growth rings you find in a tree. If the hot pin melts the surface or you smell burning plastic, then you know the material is plastic or polymer.
Ancient Art for Modern Times
Dating back to the 19th century, scrimshaw is still thriving today. The true mark of value is the ability to not only stand the test of time but continue to thrive. It began as a creative outlet for sailors away from home to document their travels. Today it is a method for seafaring and land-dwelling artists alike to flex their skills and talent.
For many people, art is a form of expression that lets them say something without the use of words. While some art will speak to deep parts of your soul, other works will simply make you smile when you look at them. There is no wrong way to make, shop for, or enjoy art.
Art is meant to evoke feelings. Those feelings can be complicated or simplistic, joyful or painful. The key is to find a piece of scrimshaw art that you enjoy looking at, which is not a hard task. From opening letters to playing board games with friends and family, you have a brilliant way to incorporate the beautiful nautical art we call scrimshaw into your life.