What is Scrimshaw Art?
July 4, 2023

Scrimshaw is a form of art that features carvings, engravings, or scrollwork made in bone or ivory. It also comprises hand tools, kitchen utensils, toys, and decorative pieces made using teeth, bone, and ivory.

Scrimshaw Art’s Origin

The art originated from whalers in the 18th century. They would often create artwork during their free time. Since whaling was done during the day, the whalers had plenty of time on their hands at night. They would utilize this time to create scrimshaw using teeth and bones from animals, such as sperm whales and walruses. Whale bones were especially a favorite as they were easy to work with and readily available.

The results largely depended on the tools used and the artist’s skill. Thus, scrimshaw is available in varying levels of detail and artistry. Most commonly, they depict whaling scenes and lettering made on the surface of a bone or tooth. To highlight their work, the whalers often used small sculptures made from the same material, pigment, candle black, soot, and tobacco juice ink.

The oldest scrimshaw art is a sperm whale tooth dated back to 1817. The inscription on the tooth details the sperm whale’s origin,  the crew that caught it & the year, and how much oil it produced. It is among the few scrimshaw art whose creator is known – a majority are anonymous.

Creating scrimshaw art served as a leisure activity for creative sailors for decades until commercial whaling was banned in the late 18th century due to the overhunting of whales to near extinction. This led to a slowdown in creating scrimshaw art using the by-products of whales.

Instead, Scrimshanders (makers of scrimshaw art) utilized walruses’ tusks, elephants’ ivory, hippo tusks, warthog ivory, giraffe bones, camel bones, micarta, and the mother of pearl. That is until the 19th century when the material option further narrowed due to the ban on walrus tasks and elephant ivory.

Contemporary Scrimshaw Art

Today, the creation of scrimshaw art is eminent among commercial artisans. Unlike their predecessors, who used crude tools, they use finer tools, mostly borrowed from the dental industry. They also use a variety of colors to bring their motifs into better view.

Killing whales and marines for their teeth and bones is still illegal. The only legal means to acquire these materials is through estate sales, auctions, and reputable dealers. Custom officials worldwide often scan the market for illegally sourced materials and, if found, seize them, making them lose their value and almost impossible to sell.

Consequently, scrimshaw art made from alternative materials dominates the market. Modern designs include both nautical themes of historical scrimshaw and new creations. Technology makes carving techniques much better and produces more desirable results. However, you should beware of fakes as there are fewer unique scrimshaw art in the market.

To view historical scrimshaw art, you may visit museums, including The Nantucket Whaling Museum, The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia, The Kendall Whaling Museum, and the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, to mention a few.

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