We travel back to New England’s days as the world’s whaling capital to answer the question “What is scrimshaw?”
By Yankee Magazine
Jan 23 2020
Edward Burdett scrimshaw depicting the Rose of Nantucket, from a display at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.Photo Credit : Merlynne6 via Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to an enduring fascination with the New England whaling era — which made the books Moby-Dick a classic and In the Heart of the Sea a best-seller — most of us likely don’t give much thought to the question “What is scrimshaw?” But the answer isn’t as simple as one might think. From its origins to its many creative incarnations, this nautical folk art is worth a closer look.
To learn the memorable story behind a famous piece of New England–made scrimshaw, see “Speak, the Tooth” from the May/June 2018 issue of Yankee.
Scrimshaw is a kind of carving that was done by primarily the crews of deepwater whaling vessels in the 1800s. And no nation had more whaling ships afloat in that era than America: In 1846, for example, it had some 640 whaling ships, which was three times as many as the rest of the world’s nations combined. This is partly why scrimshaw is widely seen as an indigenous American art form — and the only one, in fact, outside of Native American handwork.
So what distinguishes scrimshaw from mere whittling? According to E. Norman Flayderman’s Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders, it comes down to nautical ties. Historically speaking, scrimshaw artists (aka “scrimshanders”) were whalemen, sailors, or others who made their living on the sea. They used materials taken from sea animals, mainly whales but also porpoises, walruses, and even mollusks. And finally, they tended to depict nautical scenes and motifs: ships, flags, anchors, and so on.
The first written reference to scrimshaw appeared in an 1826 ship’s log, which reported that during a spell of no wind and thick fog, “all hands [were] employed scrimshonting.” But the craft had already been practiced aboard ships for several years. The earliest dated example of scrimshaw is a sperm whale tooth depicting the whaleship Adam of London, dated 1817 and carved by an anonymous artist.
The first known scrimshaw artist is Edward Burdett of Nantucket, who began his whaling career as a teenager in 1822. Later in the same decade came Frederick Myrick, another Nantucket native, who was the first scrimshaw artist to sign and date his works. According to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, these two represented “the vanguard of a tremendously productive generation of American, British, and Australian scrimshaw artists who followed in the 1830s and ’40s, the Golden Age of scrimshaw.”
The practice of scrimshaw continued into the 1850s and beyond, but it gradually declined as the era of Yankee whaling drew to a close. One of the most highly regarded scrimshaw artists came from this twilight time: Nathaniel Sylvester Finney, a native of Plymouth, Massachusetts. He crewed on whaling ships from 1830 to the late 1850s; afterward, he opened a studio in San Francisco and reportedly became the first scrimshaw artist to make a decent living from it.
For decades, the appreciation of scrimshaw as an art form was largely confined to nautical museums and a handful of collectors. That began to change, though, after the 1955 publication of Everett Crosby’s book, Susan’s Teeth and Much Ado About Scrimshaw. Five years later John F. Kennedy was elected president, and his well-documented passion for collecting scrimshaw helped put a spotlight on this art form that remains to this day.
A whale’s tooth engraved with a majestic tall ship under full sail may be the classic image of scrimshaw. But the scrimshanders of yesteryear often created objects that went beyond the purely decorative. In their hands, tooth and bone transformed into tools and containers, game pieces and fashion accessories.
Among this inventory of “ingenious contrivances, curiously carved” (to borrow a memorable phrase), you can find:
Busks: Thin strips of whalebone or baleen inserted into a woman’s corset to help maintain its shape.
Swifts: Intricate latticework devices used to wind yarn into a skein.
Pie crimpers: Kitchen implements used to seal the edges of a pie before baking. Also called “jagging wheels.”
The best way to understand what is scrimshaw may be to go see some examples in person. There’s a treasure trove on public display in Massachusetts alone.
New Bedford Whaling Museum: The home of the world’s largest scrimshaw collection also hosts an annual Scrimshaw Weekend.
Nantucket Whaling Museum: The 300-plus pieces on display here include the work of native sons Edward Burdett and Frederick Myrick.
Cape Cod Maritime Museum: The donation of a family collection has yielded Cape Cod’s largest publicly displayed array of scrimshaw.
This post was first published in 2018 and has been updated.