Imagine being part of the crew on a deepwater whaling vessel in the 1800s. There were more ships in the American fleet in that era than those belonging to any other nation. With over 640 whaling ships, American crew on whaling vessels saw a lot of adventure and had lots of spare time to take up a hobby.
The hobby of choice became an iconic art form called scrimshaw. Made from the byproducts of the whales captured on the long journeys into deep water, scrimshaw art is engraved into bones, cartilage, teeth, or ivory harvested from whales. This hand-crafted art is also created from the tusks of walruses encountered on the way. Not to be confused with fossils, scrimshaw art is etched into bones and teeth upon harvesting, not on those discovered in a buried state.
Initially, scrimshaw referred to the sailors creating common tools from the whale byproducts. Whaling was extremely dangerous work and only done in the daytime, leaving lots of downtime during the evenings and nights for artistic pursuits. Using candle black, soot, or tobacco juice, sailors evolved from designing tools to bringing their art to life through these etched designs.
Common Scrimshaw Art Designs:
- Hand tools
- Kitchen utensils
- Decorative pieces
What Do You Call a Scrimshaw Artist?
A person who creates scrimshaw art is referred to as a scrimshander. The earliest scrimshanders were seen etching their artwork into bone and cartilage with crude sailing needles. Depending on the movement of the sea and ship, as well as the artist’s skill, the resulting pieces had widely varying levels of detail and artistry.
While scrimshanders and scrimshaw art were common in the 1800s and into the 20th century, the artwork has become limited due to the overhunting and near collapse of the sperm whale population and restrictions placed on whale teeth, marine tusks, and ivory. Fortunately, the Endangered Species Act now protects ivory-bearing animals. Though this act restricts continued scrimshaw art production, it allows certain circumstances in which these artifacts can still be created and traded.
Current Legal Trade for Scrimshaw Art Products:
- Estate sales, auctions, and antiques dealers
- Established and reputable dealers
- Ivory considered ancient (10,000- 40,000-year-old mammoth ivory)
5 Places Where You Can See a Collection of Scrimshaw Art:
- Hull Maritime Museum in Kingston upon Hull, England
- New Bedford Whaling Museum
- Nantucket Whaling Museum
- Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, VA
- Scrimshaw Museum at the Peter Café Sport, Azores
1. Hull Maritime Museum is in Kingston upon Hull, England
Get your maritime history facts checked at this nautical museum that includes exhibits from as far back as the Bronze Age and the Middle Ages. While focused primarily on Hull’s maritime history, the Hull Maritime Museum has an entire gallery dedicated to the whaling industry and includes the most extensive collection of scrimshaw art in Europe. In addition, the museum itself serves as a striking example of Victorian architecture, standing in Queen Victoria Square directly opposite the Queen’s Gardens.
2. New Bedford Whaling Museum within the Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
This museum, located in New Bedford, Massachusetts, dedicates every inch to the whaling industry, which dramatically impacted the South Coast of Massachusetts. Within the walls of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, you can explore 3,000 pieces of scrimshaw art that make up the largest collection of this artwork in the world. The complex occupies an entire city block and houses the Lagoda, the world’s largest model whaling ship.
3. Nantucket Whaling Museum in Nantucket, Massachusetts
Have a whale of a good time at the Nantucket Whaling Museum, where you will find a 46-foot-long sperm whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling! Nantucket has dedicated the old Hadwen & Barney Oil and Candy Factory to the implements, art, and ideas of the industry that made Nantucket prosperous during the whaling era. Explore scrimshaw and other decorative arts galleries for more information on Nantucket life and art.
4. Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia
Designated as America’s National Maritime Museum by Congress, The Mariners’ Museum and Park is one of the largest maritime museums in North America. This museum houses the largest maritime history collection in the Western Hemisphere, including miniature ship models, paintings, carvings, steam engines, and an impressive collection of scrimshaw art. Always wanted to see a boat that won the America’s Cup? Here you can see the 2013 winner, Oracle Team USA 17, the largest boat in the museum’s collection.
5. Find the Scrimshaw Museum on the Island of Faial in the Azores
If you find yourself on the North Atlantic island near Portugal, stop by Peter Café Sport on the island of Faial to see the Scrimshaw Museum. A beautiful space dedicated to the history and craft of scrimshaw art awaits. Wander the pieces on display, feel a connection to the whalers of long ago, and then escape back to the sea to soak up the sun on this stunning archipelago.
Does Scrimshaw Art Originate with American Whalemen?
Where the art form originated is a popular discussion in the history of scrimshaw art. Some historians trace its origins to the Eskimo culture and Native American art that had been practiced for centuries. Others consider it a maritime art that may have been influenced by Eskimo and Native American artists and adapted by American whalemen, thus appearing to be an activity that sprung from whaling. The origins may not be exact, but the creation of the stunning and detailed scrimshaw art pieces is the undeniable result of decades of artists’ influence.
Is Scrimshaw Art Only Etchings on Bone?
Scrimshaw art includes a wide range of shapes and sizes, utilitarian carvings or decorative objects, and scenes etched into whale bone or walrus tusks. The sailors carved gifts and objects meant for sale or trade, including figurines, pie crimpers, and even cribbage boards. Often the sailors would carve knife handles and seam rubbers for their own use on the ship.
Scrimshanders created functional pieces that are noteworthy in collections on display in prominent museums. Etching and drawing were a large part of creating scrimshaw, but functional pieces also have a strong place in the art form’s history. Exceptionally rare scrimshaw art pieces on display include swifts, canes, corset busks, clothespins, watch hutches, bird cages, and pie crimpers. Beauty and function are strongly represented in the art of scrimshaw.
What are Common Scenes in Scrimshaw Art?
Using a knife or needle, artists etch designs into the whale teeth or ivory and then emphasize the carving with black pigments such as soot, tobacco juice, or lampblack. The scenes being carved were often from the whaler’s life, depicting the scenes laid before them daily. In addition, they would etch symbols or items that were of importance to them.
Common Designs on Scrimshaw Art:
- Whaling scenes
- Whaling ships
- Sailors’ sweethearts
- Masonic emblems
- Irish harp
Whalers often got their ideas from books and papers, though many created original artwork with their freehand as they braved the deep whaling waters. The more skilled scrimshanders created lively sketches and practical tools from the words captured in the pages of books, with only their imaginations to guide them.
How are the Scrimshaw Art Designs Preserved?
Preserving this artwork can be challenging when on organic materials like teeth and bone. Bone items are incredibly fragile and porous, making them difficult to preserve with organic oil. However, clear paste wax or high-end car wax can seal the surface after oiling with a light, clear mineral oil. Much like the natural oils of our hands discolor piano keys while playing over time, organic oils affect the discoloration of the ivory in scrimshaw art.
Safe storage, such as temperature-controlled and out of direct sunlight, is recommended more than oils and waxes. Washing your hands before handling or handling with soft cotton gloves is always key to artifact preservation without adding additional topicals to the surface of the artwork.
Keeping your scrimshaw art clean is as easy as simple dusting and wiping gently with a clean, soft cloth. Scrubbing is not necessary and will damage the surface. If your piece presents with dirt, use a cotton ball with rubbing alcohol and wipe gently. The natural beauty of the art is easily preserved with gentle, scrub-free caregiving.
Is Scrimshaw Art Still Practiced?
While whalebone is no longer a common medium for this type of artwork, current artists will use materials such as hippo tusks, warthog ivory, buffalo horn, mother of pearl, and other materials that are not protected. Nineteenth- and 20th-century scrimshaw is legal but prohibited for commercial import after 1989 for elephant ivory and 1973 for sperm whale and walrus ivory due to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Modern scrimshaw uses the common materials to depict nautical themes consistent with the history of scrimshaw but will also veer well outside of the traditional. While the shapes and texture of the pieces may stay familiar, the scenes and images coaxed from modern materials move away from the water and reflect more contemporary images. Typically still steeped in nature, current scrimshaw-style art can be etched on knives, pool cues, and even a hawk skull.
Is Scrimshaw Art Valuable?
Due to the increasing interest in scrimshaw, its origins, and preservation of the art form, the value of pieces ranges dramatically. A legitimate piece of scrimshaw art can draw anywhere from $1,000 to $75,000 or even more. Of course, the condition and age of the piece can influence this range greatly.
Often given as gifts to commemorate a journey or thoughts of reuniting with a lover, scrimshaw art often reflects the images that were most important to the sailor: whaling scenes, ships, and women. The scene depicted on the scrimshaw art can influence the value, as well as the condition in which the piece is being presented. An art auction house is the best place to have a piece valued and authenticated to ensure its legitimacy and worth.
How Do I Know My Scrimshaw Art is Authentic?
Most scrimshaw reproductions are produced with plastic. Therefore, using a very hot needle or pin, stick the tip of the needle (or pin) into an inconspicuous place on the piece of scrimshaw and note if it smells like burning plastic or only leaves a small black dot. A red-hot needle or pin might produce the smell of burning ivory or bone, so be sure that the smell is distinctly plastic before calling the scrimshaw vendor a fraud!
Take care to get a valuation from a reputable purveyor or dealer if you want to establish the value of your art for selling. A museum or university art department might also be willing to examine your scrimshaw art for free but be prepared to pay a fee. Finally, be certain of the age of the piece you are selling – any scrimshaw art for sale must be proven to be over 100 years old to be sold interstate.
Do I Want to Collect Scrimshaw Art?
Thanks to an ongoing fascination with the New England whaling era, this nautical art continues to live on as a relevant, enduring art form. More than mere whittling, scrimshanders share the story of their lives and livelihood that is interesting to more than just generations of whalers and their families – it’s American history at its most detailed! If your home leans into a nautical theme, collecting scrimshaw art is an easy choice.
For those who want to get nautical, scrimshaw is an appreciated art form that celebrates art for function and beauty, endurance, and mystique. A collection of scrimshaw art goes beyond a beautiful addition to your home décor; it is a nod to the American whaler – the sailors who worked in an industry that created wealth and security for many Americans from the 1800s through today.
Appreciation of scrimshaw art isn’t limited to an expensive art collection. Find the nautical art form on items you use every day – letter opener, lighter, or money clip – and show your dedication to an art form from days past with our scrimshaw-style art. Collecting and displaying scrimshaw-style art in any form will pique curiosity and inspire conversation in the generations that came before us.