Traditional Crafts: Historic Scrimshaw
History of Scrimshaw
Considered the one of the most important forms of American Folk Art, Scrimshaw is an art form that dates back over 200 years to the whaling days of New England. In Moby-Dick, Melville referred to “lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth.” American whalers of the 18th and 19th centuries etched intricate scenes on ivory using a sharp tool & India ink. Most scenes depict sailing ships, whaling activities & subjects related to life at sea.
Scrimshaw originally referred to the sailor’s shipboard practice of creating simple tools for etching; only later did it actually refer to the product on which the etching was done. Aboard whaling ships, whales teeth were readily available as byproduct of whale harvested for oil and bone for corsets & such. Scrimshaw was a leisure activity for whalers. Whalers had a great deal more free time than other sailors, as they were unable to work at night and there were often several weeks, or months, that would pass between whale sightings. During this time, the sailors would practice Scrimshaw.
Scrimshaw is considered by some to be the only art form that originated in North America, since the art of Scrimshaw was first practiced by sailors working New England whaling ships. Contrary to this, the Inuit also practiced scrimshaw by carving whale bone with sharp objects and smudging them with soot & oil. There is also evidence of New England area Indians, predating European settlers, carving bone & ivory into animal figures with etched “scrimshaw” technique of decorative carving. The most recognized & sought after form of Scrimshaw today, is the ivory whales tooth with pictures of ships & other scenes scratched in the front of the tooth.
Preservation of Species
In the 1970s, the sperm whale along with other whales, were placed on the endangered species list. The Expedition Vessel Wanderbird supports whale conservation efforts by participating in whale identification & logging efforts. Wanderbird is a stand-by vessel for whale disentanglement efforts. Captains Rick & Karen Miles have donated the use of Wanderbird for intensive habitat research for the Critically Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale for three consecutive years.
These are the finest reproductions we have ever seen. These ivory polymer reproductions are free-hand etched, crafted in the same manner as was done during the age of whaling, & then hand cast. By not selling any ivory, we can truly say that our Scrimshaw products do not endanger any wildlife.