Research on Antiques & Collectibles

ANTIQUE MARITIME FOLK ART: Scrimshaws, Walrus Tasks, Sperm Whale Teeth and other marine body parts as Art

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The North Pacific and the South Seas were the principal source of scrimshaw for more than a hundred years after 1800. These miniature carvings and engravings on ivory, bone, or wood were made by whalers as an escape from the monotony of a prolonged cruise which might keep the men away from home ports for four or five years. When whales failed to show up and the ship was becalmed, existence in narrow and filthy quarters became an ordeal for crew and officers alike. Nerves were frayed, tempers grew short, and quarrels were apt to flare up. In these circumstances, handwork that required close application provided real occupational therapy.

The best-known description of scrimshaw is that given by Herman Melville in ‘Moby Dick’. Melville had sailed on a New England whaler in 1841 - Scrimshandering was in its heyday from 1840 to 1850 - and he knew about it from personal observation. He wrote: "Throughout the Pacific, and also in Nantucket, and New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling scenes, graven by fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies' busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen called the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material, in their hours of ocean leisure. Some of them have little boxes of dentistical-looking implements, specially intended for the skrimshandering business. But, in general, they toil with their Jack-knives alone . . ."

The "little ingenious contrivances" were many and varied: swifts (devices for winding yarn into balls) and reels, knitting needles, needle cases, rolling pins, bracelets, whips, embroidery frames, oval cases and ditty boxes, writing desks, cribbage-boards, baby-wagons, foot scrapers, pipes, ship models, toys, wedges, coconut bowls, parrot cages, candlesticks. Favorite pieces were the polished and engraved whales' teeth; decorated walrus tusks, yigging wheels (pie crimpers), canes and umbrella handles, boxes studded with bone or shell inlays, statuettes of all kinds, and busks (the front stays of old-fashioned corsets) with such inscriptions as:

This bone once in a spermwhale's jaw did rest;
Now 'tis intended for a woman's breast.
This, my love, I do intend
For you to wear and not to lend.

Wood, bamboo, coconut, animals' teeth, whalebone, and walrus tusks were the materials commonly at hand. The name scrimshaw and its variants - squimson, scrimshorn, scrimshonting, scrimshorning, skrimshander - are of unknown origin. Cheever (‘The Whale and Its Captors’, 1850) may have been the first to use it in print. He also spoke of the process of "muxing and scrimshander." Some believe the term to be of Indian origin; others, from the South Seas; it may even be Old English. We find it in the following form in the log book of the ‘Grand Turk’ in 1826: "Homeward bound scrimshonting"; and in 1840 in that of the bark ‘London Packet’: "All hands employed scrimshorning." The activities of scrimshanderers are often mentioned - even if not by that name - in the log books of the New England whalers, as early as 1791 and as late as 1904.

There is general agreement that the home ports of typical scrimshanderers in a restricted sense were New Bedford, Salem, Nantucket, and other whaling centers of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and it is in the marine museums and in private ownership there that the largest and best collections of New England scrimshaw are treasured. Other good collections are at the museum in Mystic, Connecticut, and in New York City and Newport News, Virginia. Long Island and Massachusetts abound in relics and recollections of whaling days. But it is a mistake to believe that scrimshaw is exclusively the product of New England or "Boston" whalers. Norwegians, according to a recent claim, have practiced it; and scrimshaw materials, both Indian and English, are to be found in the museums of England. The natives of the South Seas, the Eskimos of Bering Strait, and the Indians of the North Pacific Coast all made substantial contributions.

Any consideration of the origin of ideas and patterns for decoration embodied in these seamen's carvings leads us still farther afield. They were as many and varied as the sailors' experiences on the broad seas - the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Arctic. The craftsmen, like the working elements and materials, were mixed: "Boston," Portuguese, South Sea Islanders or Kanakas, Bering Sea Eskimo, Aleutian, North Pacific Coast natives (especially Haida and Tlingit Indians), Chinese, Negroes and mulattoes from Fayal, West Africa (where the whalers stopped over for recruits and refreshment on their way to the Cape and the Pacific). Even an expert at times can hardly be sure whether an engraving on a walrus tusk of hunting scenes at sea, or of folk revelry on shore, is Bostonian or Bering Sea.

A large number of South Sea natives sailed the Pacific at one time in the service of traders and whalers, and not a few of them mingled with the natives of the North Pacific Coast. The Tameris of Alaska were named after their Polynesian forebears, and some families of the Skidegate Haida, the Tlingit at Wrangell, and the Nass River tribes, still trace their ancestry in part to Kanakas. South Seas influence is apparent in some wooden carvings of a figure carrying a child, which come from the North Pacific Coast. They show hardly any trace of local stylization, and were most likely carved by a Kanaka living there. As early as 1785-1795, the Haida Indians of the Queen Charlotte Islands would come in their dugouts to meet the English and American traders, with armfuls of carved trinkets for the barter of commodities.

Clearly, white traders and whalers influenced the native artists as well as being influenced by them. In ‘Pursuing the Whale’ (1926) John A. Cook points out that the natives of Northern Alaska are "very ingenious in tattooing ivory, and many cribbage boards are made from the tusks of walrus." And it is possible to trace today's renaissance of Eskimo art in miniature carvings to scrimshaw antecedents.