Overview of Scrimshaw – The Whalers’ Art

Overview of Scrimshaw –
The Whalers’ Art

Definition and Etymology:
These days, “scrimshaw” is taken to refer to all kinds of carving and engraving on ivory, bone, sea shells, antler, and cow horn. However, in its original context as a traditional shipboard pastime of 19th-century mariners, scrimshaw refers to the indigenous, occupationally-rooted art form of the whalers, the defining characteristic of which is use of the hard byproducts of the whale fishery itself – sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory, baleen (erroneously called whalebone), and skeletal whale bone, often used often in combination with other “found” materials. The origin and etymology of the term scrimshaw is unknown and has been disputed, but various forms of it – such as scrimsshander, skrimshonting, and skrimshank – began to appear in American whalemen’s parlance in the early 19th century. The term originally referred to the production of sailors’ hand-tools and practical implements, such as seam rubbers, fids, belaying pins, and thole pins, mostly made for the ship during working hours; but it soon came to signify objects made by whalemen–and, to a lesser extent, by tars in the naval and merchant services– primarily for their own recreation and amusement, intended mostly as mementos for folks at home.

“Hard byproducts” of whaling were flotsam and jetsam of the fishery – parts of the whale that had little or no commercial value and thus could be given over to the sailors for their own pleasurable diversions. Sperm whale teeth could be polished to a high gloss, then engraved with pictures to which lampblack and colored pigments could be applied. Or they could be carved in relief or in full round, to produce sculptural forms, human and animal figures, finials, handles, tools, inlay, and all manner of ornaments for wooden boxes, canes, and other objects.

Likewise walrus ivory. The walrus hunt had been associated with whaling since medieval times, and even where the whalers did not take walrus themselves (as was typically the case in the 19th century), tusks were obtained by barter with Northern peoples in Canada, Siberia, and Alaska, and were often utilized to scrimshaw. Virtually anything that could be made of whale ivory could also be crafted from walrus ivory.

The characteristics of whale and walrus ivory are similar. The advantages of sperm whale teeth are (in especially fine specimens) its milky smoothness, homogeneity of texture, breadth, and rich color. However, a length of 20 cm (or 8 inches) is uncommonly large for a sperm whale tooth; 28 cm (11 inches) is just about the record. Walrus tusks, on the other hand, frequently range up to 70 cm (about 27 inches) or longer: they not only provide a larger surface for pictorial engraving, but can be cut and sliced and combined into larger objects or larger ornaments, including the slats for swifts (yarn-winders), shafts and handles for pie crimpers, even the bars and slats for elaborate birdcages.

Baleen is the keratin plates in the mouths of the odontocete or so-called baleen whales, which includes all of the great whale species except sperm whales. Biologically, these keratin plates are larger manifestations of the same material as human fingernails, animal hoofs, and bovine horn. As applied to scrimshaw, baleen tends to be sinewy, brittle, and in many ways difficult to work; it is also vulnerable to larvae parasites. But it is also reasonably pliable, which is the basis of its commercial viability for corset stays, umbrella ribs, and skirt hoops. Properly handled, it is ideally suited for corset busks (staybusks) or bent-sided round and oval ditty-boxes. A deft artisan can also incise it effectively with pictures.

Through the centuries, each of these products had commercial value from time to time, and so were only intermittently available to whalers for their own hobby work. Baleen had many commercial applications, but a baleen surplus in Holland in the 17th century eroded its commercial value, affording mariners an opportunity to obtain pieces of baleen for their own use. Skeletal whale bone was used for architecture and artisanry by Norse and Basque whaling pioneers in medieval times; but, beginning in the 17th century, pelagic whalers – who were primarily concerned with oil and secondarily with baleen – discarded the bones as worthless deadweight. So eventually bone, too, came into the hands of whaleman-artists.

Whalemen often used the basic materials that define scrimshaw – sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory, baleen, and skeletal bone – in combination with other “found” materials, typically bits and pieces of wood, metal, sea shells, tortoise shell, and cloth. Latin American coins, in wide circulation in the Pacific, could be fashioned into finials and fixtures. The characteristic basic black pigment was lampblack, a suspension of carbon in oil, the product of combustion, easily obtained from the shipboard tryworks (oil cookery) or from ubiquitous oil lamps. (The notion that whalemen used tobacco juice as a pigment for scrimshaw is purely fanciful: it isn’t black, it doesn’t work, and not even a single example has been documented.) Colored pigments for polychrome (multi-colored) works included verdigris (a tenacious green deposit naturally forming on copper and brass), various homemade fruit and vegetable dyes, and commercially-produced india or china ink.

Scrimshaw Precursors
Whale ivory, bone, and baleen precursors to whalemen’s scrimshaw appeared almost from the beginning of medieval European whaling: domestic implements carved out of skeletal bone by Vikings in Norway, game pieces and chessmen made at Paris, Cologne, and elsewhere, and an impressive inventory of 11th- and 12-century votive carvings produced in English and Danish monasteries. Walrus tusks from Norway became a cheaper substitute for elephant ivory (which was imported to Europe from Africa by Venetian and Genoese merchants), and found its way into the hands of artisans in Central Europe, England, Turkey, Russia, and Spain. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch and German whaling captains occasionally used baleen to make oval boxes, mangles (for folding cloth), and votive objects commemorating a family event or a successful hunt.

The Advent of Whalemen’s Scrimshaw
It was not until after the Napoleonic Wars that the meteoric rise of whaling, resulting in longer voyages, larger crews, and over-manned ships, created an atmosphere for scrimshaw to flourish on a large scale. A few bone swifts, straightedges, and hand-tools survive from the 18th century; but the earliest known works of engraved pictorial scrimshaw date from circa 1817-21. Contrary to popular belief in many quarters, which ascribes the origin of pictorial scrimshaw to American hands, the first practitioners to adorn sperm whale teeth were British South Sea whalers, a few of whose pioneering works survive in the Museum collection. The first piece to bear a date is elaborately but anonymously inscribed from the whaleship Adam of London, date 1817. The first known American scrimshaw artist, and one of the best, was Edward Burdett (1805-1833), who began scrimshandering circa 1824. The first American piece to bear a date is a recently-discovered tooth engraved by Edward Burdett aboard the ship Origon of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, in 1827. The most famous early scrimshaw artist is Burdett’s fellow-Nantucketer Frederick Myrick (1808-1862), who produced 36 or more so-called “Susan’s Teeth” aboard the Nantucket ship Susan during 1828-29: he was the first ever to sign and date some of his work. These pioneers were the vanguard of a tremendously productive generation of American, British, and Australian scrimshaw artists who followed in the 1830s and ’40s, the Golden Age of scrimshaw.

Pictorial Scrimshaw
From the orthodox ship-portraits and whaling scenes pioneered in the 1820s, the pictorial repertoire expanded dramatically in the 1830s to include virtually every kind of image and theme. Sedate female figures and family groupings were persistent favorites. Patriotic subjects, naval scenes, symbolic figures like Britannia, Columbia, and Hope, and portraits of Great Men and Women – George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Napoleon, Josephine Bonaparte, and Jenny Lind – abounded. The scrimshanders’ eye took in all subjects and themes, Biblical, mythological, and theatrical, zoölogical and botanical, urban, rural, religious, and ecclesiastical, domestic, foreign, exotic, and banal.

Diversity of Scrimshaw
It is the remarkable diversity and intricate ingenuity of shipboard scrimshaw that drew the comments of contemporaneous observers. Reverend Henry Cheever remarked that “skimshander” is a term for “the ways in which whalemen busy themselves when making passages, and in the intervals of taking whales, in working up sperm whales’ jaws and teeth and right whale bone into boxes, swifts, reels, canes, whips, folders, stamps, and all sorts of things, according to their ingenuity” (The Whale and His Captors, 1850). Herman Melville, a veteran whaleman, if not actually a scrimshaw artist himself, describes the genre as “lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material in the hours of ocean leisure” (Moby Dick, 1851). There were indeed many types, produced primarily as mementos and souvenirs for the whalemen themselves, and especially as gifts for loved ones at home.

The swift (an elaborate yarn-winder), a distinctively American form, was an early and persistent manifestation. Pie crimpers and kitchen implements proliferated. Corset busks (staybusks) and canes (walking sticks) were epidemic: whaleman John Martin, homeward-bound with a full catch in the Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware, in 1844, wrote whimsically in his journal , “There are enough canes in this ship to supply all the old men in Wilmington.” Ditty boxes, workboxes, and tabletop chests could be extremely simple or highly ornate, made entirely of baleen or bone, or a combination of materials and inlays, sometimes surmounted with a human or animal figure carved in full round. Aromatic boxes of precious Polynesian sandalwood, often exquisitely inlaid with ivory, abalone, and silver, were constructed by many painstaking seamen. Among the most elaborate creations were “architectural” or “architectonic” forms: pocketwatch stands, usually shaped like miniature “grandfather” clocks (tall clocks), a nighttime resting place for dad’s gold timepiece. Sewing boxes, typically built of wood or bone, often lavishly fitted with drawers, spools for thread, pincushions, and other accessories, were characteristically ornately decorated with inlay, finials, fobs, and fixtures of marine ivory, sea shell, tortoise shell, and silver. A skeletal-bone and or wood-and-bone birdcage could consume countless months of work at sea. Banjos and violins with ivory and bone fittings were also in the inventory of the musically inclined and manually skilled.

In fact, many whalemen were quite skilled – ship’s carpenters and coopers perhaps especially so. Having been trained in the trades, their dexterity and technical competence would have been substantially better honed than average; certainly their per capita scrimshaw productivity was disproportionately high. Nor was scrimshandering limited to the whalers themselves. Wives and children, who sometimes accompanied whaling captains to sea, also produced scrimshaw in significant numbers. Some of the women – like Sallie Smith, wife of Captain Frederick Howland Smith of Dartmouth, Massachusetts – produced work to as high a standard as their male counterparts.

The defining characteristic of scrimshaw is the occupational context of process, materials, and personnel. Its aesthetic, iconographical, and technical characteristics, exhibiting trends and tendencies that mostly followed fashion ashore, place it foursquare within the decorative mainstream. But its vivacious florescence within a single, sequestered occupational group render it unique able to impart insights into the life and times of sea labor in the Age of Sail. The scrimshaw itself was produced in large measure with the artist’s mind fixed on the people back home, not only as the intended recipients of scrimshaw gifts, but also as the beneficiaries of his newly-acquired sailors’ vision of the wide world. The genre, born of the sea, constantly looks homeward to shore.

Join us on Jan. 29th for ‘Scrimshaw 101’ . Tweet this one day course with this hashtag: #scrimshaw101

One response to “Overview of Scrimshaw – The Whalers’ Art

  1. Wow! this is so helpful. Such a good idea to provide a guide or context for the event–drawing on history, science, industry, the arts, Melville. Thank you!

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