THE WORD SCRIMSHAW
The word Scrimshaw refers to the art form, one who does Scrimshaw is referred to as a Scrimshander.
Where the word “Scrimshaw” actually came from, I don’t believe anyone really knows but I think the general consensus is, it was probably derived from a Dutch or English nautical slang expression meaning “to waste time.” In other words, anything a seaman made in his off duty hours, when there was nothing else of importance to do on the ship was considered and called “Scrimshaw” maybe because the ship’s Captain thought it was foolishness to sit and scratch pictures into a whale’s tooth and to do so was a waste of ones time. Many whaling voyages could last 3, 4, 5 years or more and several weeks or even months would pass between Whale sightings. Without something to occupy their time the seamen may well have gone stir crazy in the cramped quarters and poor living conditions aboard these ships.
Today, when people hear the word Scrimshaw, more often than not they think of the images cut or scratched into ivory or other materials to produce a picture, however, there were a number of other things that were produced aboard whaling ships that were also considered Scrimshaw. There were the hinges, latches and other whale bone and ivory fittings that made the “Nantucket Basket” famous. Seamen would also use the whale’s teeth and bones to carve into umbrella and cane handles, pie crimpers, animal figures, corset busks, various tools and tool handles, etc. While the word Scrimshaw was used to describe items made with whale bone and the ivory teeth, not all of the sailors were artistic enough to carve or do the engraving work but they might be good at working with wood so they made small wooden boxes referred to as “Ditty Boxes” which were also considered Scrimshaw. The box may have ivory inlays and maybe the sailor would trade some of his work for a piece of Scrimshaw to fit into the top of the box. A wide variety of other useful or decorative items were also considered Scrimshaw, however, it was and still is the ivory whale’s teeth with pictures engraved on them that are the most sought after form of Scrimshaw.
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HOW SCRIMSHAW ENGRAVINGS WERE DONE
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 and since they had no commercial value, the ships Captain would hand them out at no cost to the sailors that wanted them.
In there natural form the ivory whale’s teeth had ridges and other imperfections that had to be removed before the engraving work could be done, the sailors removed the imperfections by first scraping them with a knife, then they would smooth the surface to be Scrimshawed with sharkskin or pumice, the last step was to polish them to a high gloss finish with a cloth.
On the whaling ships the Scrimshaw engravings were done with a pocket knife or if the sailor/whaler was lucky he would get a discarded needle from the ships sail maker. With the knife or needle the sailor would cut and/or scratch a picture into the polished surface. Then Periodically during the engraving process the sailor would rub a 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. A broad range of subjects were depicted on the whale teeth but the most common were portraits of the ship they were sailing on and maybe the ship’s captain, there were also portraits of wives or sweethearts back home, all kinds of sea creatures, mermaids and more.
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MOBY DICK AND SCRIMSHAW
Herman Melville was the author of “Moby Dick,” a classic novel about a ships Captain and the whaling ship Pequod that went in pursuit of a great white Whale. Melville himself actually set sail on a whaling ship, the Acushnet, which sailed out of New Bedford harbor Massachusetts in the month of January 1841 bound for the Pacific Ocean and the Sperm Whale fishery. During his 18 month long voyage he heard many tales of Whale hunts and those of a malicious Great White Whale that cruised the waters of the South Pacific. Melville heard the true stories about the whaling ship, the Essex that had sailed out of Nantucket in 1819 and was rammed and sank by a furious Sperm Whale on Nov. 20th 1819. Of the 20 crew members that survived the attack and struggled to exist in 3 open life boats, only 8 survived. Most of the novel “Moby Dick” can be considered factual based on Melville’s own experience aboard a whaling ship along with the stories he heard, written accounts of the sinking of the Essex, as well as first hand accounts of the tragedy from the surviving first mate of the Essex.
In the book “Moby Dick” Melville actually mentions Scrimshaw as; “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 Scrimshander articles.”
A little known fact is, the name of the famous coffee company founded in 1970, the name “Starbucks,” was actually taken from the book Moby Dick as the Captain’s first mate was named “Starbuck.”
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THE ORIGAN 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 Native American Eskimos/Inuit’s practicing a precursor to the style of Scrimshaw the whalers/sailors were doing as early as 100 to 200 AD. In fact there are accounts of Eskimo artifacts being excavated from traditional hunting camp sites dating back as many as 6,000 years ago. Eskimos used Whale and Walrus ivory and bone for many of their tools and utensils, such as, harpoon fore shafts, fishing net weights, needles, awls, sled runners, ice probes and even bone armor. Centuries of being buried have given many of these artifacts a rich golden brown patina on the outside but with a little work to remove the outer layers reveals an awesome creamy colored working window suitable for Scrimshaw of the finest detail. While it has been said 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 we see and enjoy today.
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FROM THE SEA 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. I believe the art of Scrimshaw was being practiced on land about as soon 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. From the French and Indian wars to the Revolutionary War, then on through the Civil war all of the soldiers carried black powder firearms and a powder horn. Like the whalers and their Whale’s teeth, when the soldiers found themselves sitting idle in an encampment between battles they would smooth and polish their powder horns and engrave images into them, however, the scenes they engraved were not of ships and other whaling scenes, they were often battle scenes and maps showing where battles had been fought. There is one powder horn from the war of 1812 that was engraved with a folksy landscape, a 2-story home with 2 chimneys, trees, a rooster and a fenced yard, as well as a 3-masted schooner and other fancy embellishments. With the home and the ship, this certainly had to be the horn of an x-whaler/sailor that decided it was better to fight in a war rather than to go out to sea on another 3 to 5 year voyage hunting Whales. I once heard a story about how a seafaring man could leave the hard life of whale hunting behind, settle down with a wife and raise a family, it went something like this.
||"If you want to get away from the sea and not be tempted to go out on
another 3 to 5 year voyage, you collect your pay for the last 5 year voyage, $2
a month, throw an anchor up over your shoulder and you walk inland until someone
asks “what’s that” and that’s where you drop the anchor and build yourself a chicken farm."
As our Great Country grew further westward, Mountain Men of the “Fur Trade Era” and pioneers carried with them black powder firearms and powder horns. Mountain men also engraved their powder horns but more often than not they engraved maps on their horns showing the route to an easily traveled mountain pass, or directions to the best trapping spots, or maybe the location of friendly Indian villages where he could visit, rest a spell and maybe even spend the winter. In addition to the maps engraved in the horns, many of the powder horns carried by the Soldiers as well as the horns of the Mountain Men had very intricate embellishments on them, today this type of horn is referred to as a “Map Horn.”
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DECLINE and REBIRTH of SCRIMSHAW
Towards the end of the 1800’s natural gas and other petroleum based products were discovered and the need for whale oil declined rapidly. Although not totally gone, those left in the whaling industry made significant changes, becoming more efficient, building larger, faster, steam powered ships with better processing equipment and greater storage capacities. Harpoons fired from shipboard cannons were more accurate at much greater distances than those thrown by hand from small rowboats.
With significantly smaller whaling fleets and other changes which allowed the ships to operate more efficiently with smaller crews that meant there were fewer whalers/sailors to do Scrimshaw work. By that time the whale’s teeth and bones which in earlier years were tossed aside, now became part of the seas bounty the whaling ships were after because they now had a commercial value. Also, around the late 1860s and early 1870s the first truly successful center-fire cartridges and rifles were introduced which meant it was no longer necessary to carry a powder horn with which to load your gun. These two events occurring almost simultaneously resulted in Scrimshaw nearly becoming a lost art.