Europeans first took to the sea to hunt whales in medieval times. The fatty tissue known as blubber, which is found under the skin of all whales, and the spermaceti wax found in the heads of sperm whales made the ideal fuels of oil lamps: They burned with less smoke and odor than other animal fats. Spermaceti could also be made into candles that gave off a bright, clear light.
Once the oily parts were removed, the whale’s bones and teeth ivory would be left over. Baleen whales—which include all whales except members of the sperm whale species—also have baleen, a structure made out of keratin (the same material that makes up toenails, hoofs, and horns) in their upper jaws that the whales use as a filter to catch krill, plankton, and other nourishment. Baleen is often mistakenly referred to as “whalebone.”
Naturally, artisans started to put this material to use. Vikings in Norway carved the “hard byproducts” of whaling into household tools, Germans and the French carved chess pieces, and the English and Danish made votives for monasteries. While baleen is more brittle and susceptible to parasites, its pliability made it a useful material for clothing boning, umbrella ribs, and oval-shaped boxes.
The Vikings also hunted walruses for their tusks, which were longer—and therefore, offered more ivory to work with—than whale teeth. The hunters also used walrus hide, skulls, and even penis bones to make other utilitarian objects. For artists, the tusks they exported to countries around Europe became a more affordable alternative to elephant ivory.
During the 17th century, whalers started to venture farther from their shores, and the hard parts of the whale were usually discarded, as they weighed down the boat. Whaling expanded further in the mid-18th century, when the invention of ship’s clocks made it easier to navigate out at sea and allowed whaling ships to take longer journeys. The crewmen started to save bits of ivory, bone, and baleen for their personal use, carving them into yarn winders known as “swifts” and other hand tools.
But the art known as “scrimshaw” only dates to the early 19th century, when the demand for whale oil was so great that whaling ships started enlarging their crews and going on longer voyages to meet it. American, British, and Australian sailors, known as “scrimshanders,” started to engrave the leftover whale parts with pictures and designs. Walrus tusk was also a popular material for scrimshaw art; but the whalers did not hunt the walruses themselves—they would barter for them with hunters they met in Northern waters.
Often, a whaleman would save a whale’s tooth as a souvenir and use it as a palette for a work of art; others would make useful objects from baleen, ivory, and bone like swifts, walking sticks, pie crimpers, and corset busks, all of which were adorned with decorations. Eventually, sailors would use whale products to make boxes, pocket-watch stands, and even bird cages. It was also employed as an inlay for furniture and stringed instruments...
The scrimshaw technique involves engraving an image or words into the material and then filling the engraving with pigment. The easiest to come by was “lampblack” or soot from the ship’s “tryworks,” the cast-iron pots and furnace where blubber would be rendered into oil. Green pigment could be made from verdigris deposits on copper while other colors were made from fruit. Some artists even brought store-bought inks on the ship with them.
The first recorded scrimshaw piece, a tooth, came from a British ship and is dated 1817. Edward Burdett from the whaling-industry center Nantucket, Massachusetts, was the earliest known American scrimshaw artist, and he’s considered among the best. He’s thought to have started scrimshawing in 1924, and the earliest tooth of his existing today dates to 1927. Frederick Myrick, who made 36 artworks called “Susan’s Teeth” while sailing between 1928 and 1929, is the most celebrated American scrimshaw artist in history. Sometimes the wives and children of captains would join the whaling voyage and practiced this craft: Sallie Smith, who was married to Captain Frederick Howland Smith, proved just as talented as the male artists of the era.
In the beginning, scrimshaw art featured exclusively nautical images such as ship portraits and whaling scenes, but in the 1830s, the topics expanded to cover everything—from women and families to patriotic, biblical, and mythological themes to fauna and flora. Portraits of celebrities and political figures like George Washington, Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte, and opera singer Jenny Lind were also popular scrimshaw subjects.
By 1851, when Herman Melville’s whaling epic, Moby-Dick, or The Whale, was first published, whales were getting harder and harder to come by. Whalers chased the nearly extinct, coveted mammals to the very ends of the globe, as the number of American whaling ships swelled to 199 in 1858. The price of whale oil soared, prompting more and more people to use alcohol in their lamps. Kerosene, which was discovered in 1849, became the oil fuel of choice during the Civil War (1861-1865). In 1876, American whaling ships only numbered 39. But the damage was done: Roughly 236,000 whales were killed in the 19th century.
Since then, the International Whaling Convention, set up to manage the whaling industry and save whale populations, has banned commercial whaling (a rule Japan and Norway whalers often disregard to this day). In the United States, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 not only outlaws killing whales and walruses but also importing of marine-mammal products, which is why authentic scrimshaw objects are fairly hard to come by.
But the scrimshaw technique has been adopted and applied to myriad materials including seashell and the bone, horns, and ivory of land mammals. Bone or horn knives with scrimshaw imagery have become popular souvenirs of the American West.