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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art Museum

The American Folk Art Museum's website showcases current and past exhibitions along with their permanent collection… [read review or visit site]

Anonymous Works

Anonymous Works

This blog combines American primitive folk art, vintage vernacular photography, outsider art, and other interesting… [read review or visit site]

The Outsider Art Pages

The Outsider Art Pages

A modern look at folk and outsider art with a focus on what people are doing to keep these traditions alive. The si… [read review or visit site]

Folk Art in Bottles

Folk Art in Bottles

Whether you call them Bottle Whimseys, Whimsey Bottles, Puzzle Bottles, or Whimsies, this site showcases great folk… [read review or visit site]

Index of American Design

Index of American Design

The Index of American Design project (1935-1942) was an effort to catalog American decorative arts objects from the… [read review or visit site]

Stoveburner.com

Stoveburner.com

A stunning collection of 162 images of stoveburners, those corroded cast iron elements that power stoves, broilers,… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Junk Drawer Lot-gold.1oz Silver.scrimshaw.1800s Marble.case Knife.military.coinsFine Vtg Hand Carved Scrimshaw Butterfly Rosewood Necklace Pendant SignedStatue Of Liberty (ship & Eagle) Scrimshaw Brushed Chrome Lighter (zippo, 2002)Scrimshaw Lighthouse Scene Brushed Chrome Lighter (zippo, 20302, 2004) NibLiberty Eagle Scrimshaw Polished Chrome Lighter (zippo, #373, 1995) Nib SealedVintage Scrimshaw Bone/ivory Colored Set Nautical Ship SignedVintage Chrome Scrimshaw Whaling Ship And Whale Slim Zippo Lighter Antique Style Mermaid Scrimshaw Etched Bone & Wood Trinket Stamp Jewelry BoxVintage Zippo Slim Lighter Scrimshaw Ship Whaling Moby Dick W/ Original BoxHuge Usa Knife Lot Case Xx Camillus Remington Schrade Scrimshaw Uncle Henry Large Vintage Hand Carved Black Forest Bear W/ Glass Eyes~fine Detail~no ReserveCfk Custom Handmade D2 Kiss The Dead Scrimshaw Hunting Bone Knife Fire StarterAntique Whales Tooth,? Bear Claw? Scrimshaw Faux, Dated 1884,very Rare PieceI-of-a-kind Impact Cutlery Custom D2 D Guard Bowie Knife Bull Horn ScrimshawCustom Buck 500 Lock Back Knife Mint In Original Display Loon Scrimshaw 19th Certury Sailors Whimsy Highly Detailed Miniature Scrimshaw Toy Piano 1979 Case Xx 1-dot W165 Ssp Moby Dick Bone - Scrimshaw Pocket Knife - S/n = 3638Anton Wingen Jr. Othello Scrimshaw Blade Knife Solingen Germany W Sheath Signed Schrade U.s.a. Scrimshaw Panda 507sc Lockback Hunter Sheath Knife – Mint!Schrade Scrimshaw Usa Made Sc507 Turkey 5" Lockback Lock Blade Knife & SheathWee Forest Folk S-04"timothy Mayhew" Deck Swabber Wee Sea Folk Scrimshaw W/box 4Wee Forest Folk S-08 "william Abbe At The Helm" Wee Sea Folk Scrimshaw W/box 8Vtg Schrade 505 Racing Nascar Race Car Folding Pocket Stockman Knife ScrimshawCfk Custom Handmade D2 Wolf & Crow Scrimshaw Hunting Bushcraft Camel Bone KnifeSchrade Bear Cult Indian Scrimshaw Pocket Knife Indian CaseLimited Edition Schrade Scrimshaw Usa Made Sc507 Bear 5" Lockback Blade Knife Vintage Gerber Silver Knight Japan #200a Scrimshaw Grip Lockback Knife- MintyCfk Custom Handmade D2 Owl King Scrimshaw Hunting Bushcraft Knife Fire StarterHancock Baskets Nantucket Basket Purse With Scrimshaw Flowers LidCfk Custom Handmade D2 Largemouth Bass Scrimshaw Hunter Skinner Sheep Horn KnifeCfk Custom Handmade D2 Leopard & Lion Scrimshaw Hunting Bone Knife Fire StarterCfk Usa Custom Handmade D2 Eagles Scrimshaw Bone Bushcraft Hunter Skinner KnifeRay Peters Lahaina Maui Scrimshaw Art Sailing Ship Fossilized Tooth Wood StandCfk Custom Handmade D2 Steampunk Diver Scrimshaw Hunting Camp Knife Fire StarterCfk Custom Handmade D2 Kiss The Dead Scrimshaw Hunter Skinner Knife Fire StarterSchrade I*xl Scrimshaw Limited Edition 2 Knifes In Wooden BoxPuffin Reproduction Scrimshaw Artek Save The Whale Collection Trinket Box 1984Cfk Custom Handmade D2 Tattoo Art Scrimshaw Hunting Bushcraft Knife Fire StarterVintage Schrader Old Timer Sc502 Sharper Finger Hunting Knief Scrimshaw SeriesCustom Made Fixed Blade Knife Scrimshaw Stag Handle Leather Sheath Signed WilsonCfk Custom Handmade D2 Spider Web & Day Of The Dead Scrimshaw Hunting Bone KnifeOld Rare Chinese Japanese Asian Bone Scrimshaw Cigarette HolderScrimshaw Landscape & Bird Zippo Lighter By Artist Layden Animal Bradford Pa UsaSchrade Scrimshaw Usa Folding Pocket KnifeVintage Schrade Usa Scrimshaw Linerlock Folding Hunter - Turtle Limited Edition!Schrade Scrimshaw Usa 502sc 7-1/4" Fixed Blade Sheath Sharpfinger Knife MibZippo Scrimshaw And Brass Cigarette Lighter With CaseZippo Lighter 289 Scrimshaw Rigger Never Used Mint Condition 2002Vintage Comoy's Of London Faux Scrimshaw Cork Screw Whaling Scene Composite1985 "the Scrimshaw Connection" First (1st) Edition By Bob Engnath ~ Vintage American Blade Japan Made Scrimshaw Single Blade Pocket Knife Victorinox 4gb Custom Koa Hardwood & Scrimshaw Hula Girl Swiss Army Knife 58mmVintage Nuguruk Inuit Carving Scrimshaw Cheese Cutter Nice Vintage Scrimshaw Necklace & Earrings On Sterling And SignedVintage Sterling Silver | Handmade Camel Bone Scrimshaw Whale 29.7g | PendantSchrade Scrimshaw Pocket Knife Sc503 ( 1 Lock Blade ) UsaVintage Nos Colonial Lb95 Scrimshaw Series Pocket Knife Leather Sheath Orig Box Vtg Estate Inuit Alaska Scrimshaw Carved Billiken Pendant W/ Gold Chip Good LuckTotem Pole Scrimshaw Brushed Chrome Lighter (zippo, 20690, 2004) Nib SealedScrimshaw Duck Brushed Chrome Lighter (zippo, 2004) Nib Sealed Unfired