Often, when visiting a gentleman’s office or in his den, you may be fascinated by boxes or other items adorned with nautical pictures produced by artists using an art form called ‘scrimshaw’ on ivory or other similar substances. The purpose of this article is to introduce you to the scrimshaw art form and, due to its popularity, to provide some basic guidance for acquiring gifts using this medium.
Because of federal guidelines established in the early 1970’s, acquiring antique items made from various forms of ivory are protected and are usually only seen in museums like the Whaling Museum in Nantucket, MA. Scrimshaw-like items can easily be acquired in gift shops, and they make a very attractive gift. These items are usually made from animal bone or are cast from resin molds.
Origin of Scrimshaw
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 ancient Native American Eskimos or Inuit’s practicing a precursor to the American style of Scrimshaw. While some say that 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 art we see and enjoy today.
On board whaling ships, 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. Since they had no commercial value, the ship’s Captain would hand them out at no cost to the sailors who wanted them.
The scrimshaw engravings were done with a pocket knife or if the sailor/whaler was lucky he would get a discarded needle from the ship’s sail maker. With the knife or needle the sailor would cut and/or scratch a picture into the polished surface of the tooth. Then, periodically during the engraving process the sailor would rub pigment into the cuts and scratches. 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. It was the pigment rubbed into the cuts and scratches that made the picture come to life.
Scrimshaw Moves Inland
From the sea, sailors and whalers brought us scrimshaw on whale’s teeth with images depicting nautical scenes and other things relating to their long voyages. They also inscribed memories and images of loved ones back home. The art of scrimshaw was being practiced on land at about the same time as it was being done on the whaling ships. 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. Like the whalers and their whale’s teeth, when the soldiers found time between battles they would engrave images onto their powder horns often of battle scenes and maps showing where they had fought.
Jackknives and sailmaker’s needles have been replaced by laser printers and specialized software. One manufacturer we know created his own software for this process. He acquires blank boxes made from bone from the Far East and can reproduce high quality, scrimshaw-like pictures at will.