Unless you're familiar with traditional American folk art, you probably have no idea what the term scrimshaw means. We can assure you, though, that if that's the case, you're missing out on a ton of unique gifts!
What Is Scrimshaw?
Scrimshaw is an art form in which designs are carved, cut, or scratched into bone or ivory. Artists create scrimshaw by using the bones and cartilage of whales, including the teeth and bones of sperm whales, the baleen of whales, and the tusks of walruses.
The history of scrimshaw is a bit complicated, but the talent and hard work that artists put into each piece remain the same. As the rules and regulations around ivory have tightened over the last several decades, artists have taken the concept of scrimshaw and turned it into something truly incredible. By using different types of materials, these artists create unique gifts in the scrimshaw style that will represent the culture for years to come.
In addition to a complicated history, the meaning of the word scrimshaw itself has seen its share of controversy. Some people claim that the term is derived from an old English nautical phrase that is slang for "to waste time." However, others argue that the word's origin hails from other locations — with arguments made for roots in America and even China.
Scrimshaw: A Brief History
There are conflicting accounts about the exact origin of scrimshaw carvings. Many people believe that modern scrimshaw originated in New England in the late 1700s and early 1800s by men working aboard whaling ships. There is also evidence to support the idea that the practice is much older, possibly even by thousands of years. Although the term itself wasn't coined until later, the idea is preserved in the carvings themselves.
Initially, the term scrimshaw referred to the practice of sailors carving common tools out of the readily available pieces of whale bones. It wasn't until later that the term became associated with the art form of carvings by sailors aboard whaling ships. Although working on a boat could be dangerous and exciting, there were also often long periods of empty nothingness. Historians believe the first scrimshaw of this era was created on a sperm whale tooth as sailors attempted to keep themselves busy in between whale sightings. In addition to carved pieces of art, sailors created a variety of unique gifts that were either given away or sold for small sums of money once the low-paid sailors returned to port.
Although many believe modern scrimshaw originated in New England, archeologists have discovered older scrimshaw designs that date back as early as 100 to 200 AD. These carvings have been unearthed from hunting camps and can be traced to Native American Eskimos and the Inuit people. While the earth has left its golden color imprinted on the carvings, intricate designs can be seen after the layers of dirt are peeled away.
The popularity of scrimshaw carvings began in 1815 when the journal of U.S. Navy Captain David Porter was published. Porter's writings detailed the availability of whale teeth, which caused ordinary sailors and seamen to seek out the material, greatly diminishing the value of the unique gifts and of the material itself. The publishing of Porter's journal also coincides with the earliest authenticated example of scrimshaw carved into a sperm whale's tooth. According to the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, the inscription read, "This is the tooth of a sperm whale that was caught near the Galapagos islands by the crew of the ship Adam [of London], and made 100 barrels of oil in the year 1817."
The rise of natural gas and petroleum also contributed to the decline of scrimshaw. In the 1800s, the whaling industry saw a significant decrease in size due to the popularity of oil and natural gas over oil sourced from whales. Although the industry wasn't completely wiped out, captains were forced to create larger, more efficient ships that required fewer sailors to operate. The smaller fleet and crew sizes meant that there were fewer sailors to create scrimshaw pieces. Also, the creation of successful center-fire rifle cartridges made powder horns obsolete. The simultaneous occurrence of these two historical events was responsible for the near-extinction of scrimshaw. Thankfully, artists evolved and discovered additional materials with which they could create their works of art.
Different cultures have been using ivory as a canvas for thousands of years. The material has produced a wide variety of useful items such as decorative jewelry, needles, bowls, clasps, and even harpoon tips. Ivory is also believed to be one of the primary materials used to create some of the first modern pieces of scrimshaw. In addition to the rarer whale's teeth, artists used other sea animal ivories to create scrimshaw, including walrus tusks acquired from indigenous walrus hunters.
Once sailors carved the pieces, the scrimshaw was rubbed over with soot, the black burn from candles, or tobacco juice to help bring the carving into view. When available, ink was also used, although it was a higher quality material and less readily available to sailors at the time.
Modern scrimshaw originated during a time when sperm whales were plentiful, and hunting them was not only legal, but it was also a way of life. However, after hunters pursued the whales to near extinction, scrimshanders, the term for artists who create scrimshaw, were forced to expand the materials with which they crafted their unique gifts.
Scrimshanders are encouraged to use environmentally friendly resources for creating their scrimshaw, including material that comes from extinct animals such as mammoths and mastodon or naturally shed antlers. Scrimshanders can also recycle ivory that has been made into piano keys or old pool balls to create scrimshaw.
One of the most commonly asked questions about the materials used to make these unique Hawaiian gifts is, "Why can't artists use substitute materials?" Unfortunately, technology hasn't created the best materials for replicating traditional ivory, which is why responsible, educated scrimshanders turn to recycled materials or alternatives. For example, micarta tends to chip rather than create fine lines, faux ivory is typically constructed from non-biodegradable plastic, and Corian doesn't absorb color clearly enough to highlight the intricate carvings properly. Vegetable ivory, also known as tagua nut, is a good substitute for engraving, but like Corian, it tends to reject ink or other pigments. These issues prevent these materials from being ideal alternatives for crafting unique gifts.
If you are looking to purchase Hawaiian gifts in the form of knives or even gun grips adorned with scrimshaw, expect to make an investment. Ivory is naturally slip-resistant when exposed to rain or sweat, which is why ivory grips on knives, swords, and pistols are more common than alternatives.
Legality of Scrimshaw
The Endangered Species Act and other international restrictions have worked to curb the harvest and subsequent sale of ivory in an attempt to help revive the dwindling populations of species that produce ivory. Scrimshaw that was created on elephant ivory before 1989, and sperm whale and walrus ivory before 1973, is still legal. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits scrimshaw created after that year from being commercially imported into the United States.
The Alaska walrus ivory registration tags walrus tusks that are legal to purchase, as well as any post-law scrimshaw that has been carved into walrus ivory by a native Alaskan Indian, also known as an Eskimo. Also, any ivory that officials deem to be ancient — 10,000- to 40,000-year-old ivory sourced from a mammoth, for example — is legal and unrestricted to be sold or possessed.
Despite the multitude of regulations, scrimshanders are still able to legally source whales' teeth and marine tusks through auctions, estate sales, and antique dealers. Scrimshanders take exceptional detail in researching who they purchase materials from to avoid obtaining illegal pieces. Illegally sourced scrimshaw can be seized by customs officials. Illegal scrimshaw is not only near-worthless and incredibly hard to sell, but it's also easily recognizable due to the limited number of reputable sellers in the industry. In addition to being talented at spotting illegally obtained pieces, experts at auction houses and museums also receive training to detect scrimshaw that sellers falsely advertise as authentic. The bottom line? If you want to give a scrimshaw unique gift, do it the right way.
Motifs and Attribution of Scrimshaw
Scrimshaw designs appear on a variety of thread spools, sewing stands, baskets, baby rattles, and more from the 1700s and 1800s. The carvings also adorn jewelry boxes, as well as bottles and boxes for tobacco products. Scrimshaw from this era commonly features depictions of ships, whales, flags, portraits of sailors and their families, and other sea-inspired themes. The higher-end pieces typically contain a signature from the artist, as well as the date that the artist completed the work.
Scrimshaw of Today
Today's scrimshaw artists have the luxury of using more modern carving tools rather than the variety of knives and picks sailors were forced to use in earlier times. Many contemporary artists borrow scrimshaw tools from the dental industry to help create more detailed and intricate pieces. In addition to updated tools, the ink coloring of modern scrimshaw makes the items perfect for those searching for unique gifts for their ocean-loving friends and family members.
One of the most popular places to find modern scrimshaw designs is Hawaii. Artists have found inspiration from the scrimshaw designs of the past and combined them with the love of Hawaiian folklore such as Maui's fish hook, pocket knives, and other unique Hawaiian gifts.
Companies including Whaler's Locker in Lahaina, Hawaii offer scrimshaw in a variety of special collections. Items such as magnifying glasses, letter openers, trapper knives, and pieces of jewelry are all available engraved with a variety of scrimshaw designs. These incredible Hawaiian gifts feature carvings of whales, turtles, lighthouses, and a variety of sharks and fish. One of the essential aspects of scrimshaw is the authenticity of the creations. While it would be easy with the technological advances of today to mass-produce pieces of scrimshaw, Whaler's Locker is committed to partnering with some of Hawaii's most talented artists and artisans to create authentic pieces for its customers. Maui artist Doug Fine is one of the scrimshanders who has teamed up with Whaler's Locker to produce custom scrimshaw pieces that make for incredible and unique Hawaiian gifts.
Hawaiian Significance of Scrimshaw
Scrimshaw is about more than just the art itself. For native Hawaiians, the materials chosen for the base of the scrimshaw holds significant meaning as well. Some of the most popular pieces sold as Hawaiian gifts involve scrimshaw carved into Hawaiian fishhooks.
Also known as Maui hooks, these pieces of jewelry symbolize the connection and respect that native Hawaiians have for the ocean. The ocean provided the islanders with food, income, and a method of travel. Hawaiians believe that fishhooks, known as makau in Hawaiian, create a connection with the soul of the person who wears it. As it is worn, the necklace creates a link between souls, a relationship that is considered sacred and can transcend time and distance. Due to the spiritual connection to the soul of the wearer, these pieces become spiritual links to those who have passed on, making them cherished Hawaiian gifts among family members.
According to Hawaiian tradition, fishhooks offer the wearer protection from harm and symbolize the determination and strength that ancient anglers possessed. The hooks also symbolize the natural goodness in the world and are said to provide prosperity, strength, and luck to the wearer. Although fishermen, captains, and mates often wear these symbolic necklaces, the jewelry makes the perfect Hawaiian gift for those you love.
Taking Home a Piece of History with Scrimshaw
If you're looking to purchase Hawaiian gifts for your friends, family members, or even yourself, you can't go wrong with scrimshaw. Whether you're looking for scrimshaw, megalodon teeth, or jewelry, Whaler's Locker provides a variety of Hawaiian gifts for every occasion. Shop by price, style, or even browse a selection of unique gifts hand-curated by Bob! If you're looking for Hawaiian gifts, but you don't see what you were imagining, or have a question about a specific product, let us help.