Scrimshaw is a form of folk art practiced by whalemen in the 19th and early 20th centuries (West). The name comes from the British slang "scrimshanker," meaning one who wastes time (Dorsey). Whaling voyages often lasted four years or more and the work of whaling was dangerous. The men were unable to work at night and they often waited long periods between whale sightings. So to fill the hours and relieve the boredom, they played cards or checkers, and wrote in personal journals, while those with an artistic bent did woodcarving, sketching, knotwork - and make scrimshaw.
The taking of the whale provided scrimshanders, as makers of scrimshaw were called, with plenty of material. Sperm whales provided teeth, all whales provided bone, bowhead and right whales provided baleen (a flexible, black material found in their mouths). Walrus tusks were decorated by those who ventured into Northern waters, and scrimshanders also engraved designs on exotic wood and shells.
They used crude sailing needles or pocket knives whose blades had been specially filed and sharpened, and the rocking movement of the ship, as well as the skill of the artist, produced drawings of varying levels of detail and artistry. Candles black, soot, or tobacco juice was used to bring the engraved design into view.
While some works were purely decorative, many items made from these materials were intended for practical uses. These include napkin rings, canes, knitting needles, pie crimpers, jagging wheels (for cutting pastry), bodkins (for embroidery), swifts (yarn winders), and tools of all sorts for shipboard use (Frank).
This example, dated 1881, is made of whale bone. It shows how a sperm whale would be cut up. The engraving is of high quality, with firm, dark lines, The yellow tone of the bone is because its age. The scrimshander also carved wooden plugs to hide the hollow interior of the bone. Engraved in the bone is a title, "Outline of a Sperm Whale Showing the Manner Of Cutting In," the date, and the city "Newport R.I.," and perhaps the ships name; "Brig Steel Warrior".
Dorsey, James. Scrimshaw, as American as Jazz. World & I 32, no. 12 (December 2017): 2. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=f5h&AN=126711797&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Frank, Stuart M. Curiously Carved. Magazine Antiques 180, no. 1 (January 2013): 194-203. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=f5h&AN=84977607&site=eds-live&scope=site.
West, Janet. "Scrimshaw." Grove Art Online. 2003; Accessed 9 Mar. 2021. https://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000077190.
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