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Scrimshaw Art

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Home / Up / Prehistory of the Americas / Scrimshaw Art

Scrimshaw

Scrimshaw is the name given to handiwork created by whalers made from the byproducts of harvesting marine mammals. It is most commonly made out of the bones and teeth of sperm whales, the baleen of other whales, and the tusks of walruses. It takes the form of elaborate engravings in the form of pictures and lettering on the surface of the bone or tooth, with the engraving highlighted using a pigment, or, less often, small sculptures made from the same material. However the latter really fall into the categories of ivory carving, for all carved teeth and tusks, or bone carving. The making of scrimshaw began on whaling ships between 1745 to 1759 on the Pacific Ocean, and survived until the ban on commercial whaling. The practice survives as a hobby and as a trade for commercial artisans. A maker of scrimshaw is known as a scrimshander. Scrimshaw is also a surname. The etymology is uncertain, but there have been several proposals.
Scrimshaw is derived from the practice of sailors on whaling ships creating common tools, where the byproducts of whales were readily available. The term originally referred to the making of these tools, only later referring to works of art created by whalers in their spare time. Whale bone was ideally suited for the task, as it is easy to work and was plentiful. The development of scrimshaw took off after the market for whale teeth, which were sought by Chinese traders for use in the Pacific Islands (for example the Fijian market for tabua), was flooded with teeth after a narrative by an American sailor, Captain David Porter, revealed both the market and the source of the teeth. Around this time is the earliest authenticated pictorial piece of scrimshaw (1817). The tooth was inscribed with the following:

Scrimshawed Killer Whale's Tooth depicting a Killer Whale about to feed on Seals.

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.
Other sea animal ivories were also used as alternatives for rarer whale teeth. Walrus tusks, for example, may have been acquired in trade from indigenous walrus hunters.
Scrimshaw essentially was a leisure activity for whalers. Because the work of whaling was very dangerous at the best of times, whalers were unable to work at night. This gave them a great deal more free time than other sailors. A lot of scrimshaw was never signed and a great many of the pieces are anonymous. Early scrimshaw was done with crude sailing needles, and the movement of the ship, as well as the skill of the artist, produced drawings of varying levels of detail and artistry. Originally, candle black, soot or tobacco juice would have been used to bring the etched design into view. Today's artists use finer tools in various sizes, mostly borrowed from the dental industry. Some scrimshanders ink their work with more than one color, and restrained polychromed examples of this art are now popular.
Originating in an era when sperm whales were initially plentiful only to be hunted to near collapse, scrimshaw no longer is an artform utilizing an easily renewable animal resource, but one that is susceptible to contraband. Now, the Endangered Species Act and international conventions restrict the harvest and sale of ivory to try to reverse the scarcity of ivory-bearing animals. Though there are sources of ivory that are sanctioned and legal, poachers in Africa and other continents where elephants are an endangered species still kill for their ivory, Elephant ivory has been regulated since 1976 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and selling African ivory has been prohibited since 1989.
19th and 20th century scrimshaw, scrimshaw crafted before 1989 (elephant) or before 1973 (sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory etc.) is legal. It is prohibited after that year for commercial import in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Additionally, walrus tusks bearing the Alaska State walrus ivory registration tag, and post-law walrus ivory that has been carved or scrimshawed by a native Alaskan Indian (Eskimo), is legally available.
Finally, any ivory considered ancient, such as 10,000 to 40,000 year old mammoth ivory, is completely unrestricted in its sale or possession.
Scrimshanders and collectors acquire legal whale teeth and marine tusks through estate sales, auctions and antique dealers. To avoid illegal ivory, collectors and artists check provenance and deal only with other established and reputable dealers.
Scrimshaw that is found to have been illegally sourced may be seized by customs officials worldwide, dramatically loses value and is very hard to re-sell, as the limited channels through which collectible scrimshaw passes serves as a check on unscrupulous persons. As with any other fine art form, it is usually possible for experienced museums, auction houses or other experts to perceive a fake.
Ivory is a fragile medium; many 19th century pieces were preserved because they were kept in a barrel of oil onboard ship. Gary Kiracofe, a scrimshander in Nantucket, MA, advises collectors that if a piece looks dry, one should fill the center of the tooth with unscented baby oil and allow it to remain until as much oil as possible is soaked into the microscopic pores of the ivory. Clear paste wax or high-end car wax will seal the surface after oiling. Bone items are even more fragile (more fibrous and porous) and may be treated the same way - with a light clear mineral oil. Organic oils are inadvisable, as they will eventually hasten discoloration, as on old piano keys subjected to the natural oils in one's hands.

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale's Tooth depicting a sailing Ship

Professional conservators of art and historic artifacts will generally recommend against applying any type of dressing (like oil or wax) to organic objects such as whale ivory. Sensible choices regarding storage and display will preserve whale ivory best: keep out of direct sunlight, handle with cotton gloves or freshly washed hands, and avoid keeping in places with shifting humidity and temperature. Coating organic objects can induce eventual cracking.
Whale teeth and bones were a highly variable medium, used to produce both practical pieces, such as hand tools, toys and kitchen utensils, and highly decorative pieces, which were purely ornamental. The designs on the pieces varied greatly as well, though they often had whaling scenes on them. For example Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick, refers to "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 skrimshander articles". Most engravings were adapted from books and papers.

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