From the mighty whale came a delicate art: Nantucket scrimshaw. Crafted by sailors on long and lonely voyages to distant waters, today these items are an indelible link to the island’s maritime heritage.
It takes only a few moments on Nantucket to notice that the original “whaling capital of the world” isn’t abandoning its title anytime soon (though the mainland Massachusetts city of New Bedford lays claim to it for a later period). The sperm whale adorns everything—from souvenir sweatshirts to the town seal—on this crescent-shaped island off the coast of Cape Cod, and stately homes built by ships’ captains still hug the cobblestone streets downtown. In the heart of the village, the topnotch Nantucket Historical Association Whaling Museum draws a steady throng of visitors year-round. Inside, the 46-foot whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling possesses undeniable star power, but it’s the museum’s prized scrimshaw collection that holds perhaps the most deeply personal link to the island’s whaling past.
Scrimshaw—the art of engraving images on bone or teeth, or of carving those materials into tools and ornaments—emerged as a leisure activity for early-19th-century sailors, first among British whalers, and then most famously among the Nantucketers and other New Englanders who went to sea in pursuit of the leviathan for its valuable oil for home and industry. Today, authentic early examples are highly prized. Of the NHA’s 1,400-piece collection, 334 items are on permanent display at the museum, offering visitors a rare firsthand look at objects linked directly to both the hunters and the hunted of Nantucket’s maritime past.
“We’re not the biggest collection in the world,” says collections and systems manager Tony Dumitru, “but because the whaling industry was so important here on Nantucket, we’re a special one.” Out to sea for years at a time, the men would fill their evenings and the often-lengthy gaps between whale sightings by turning to the ship’s plentiful supply of whale teeth and bones. Once the fragment was smoothed and polished, the artist would get to work scratching images into the surface. The tools and conditions posed a challenge. “The sailors would be sitting on their trunks and using jackknives or crude sailing needles,” Dumitru says, “often in very cramped quarters.”
By rubbing lampblack or India-ink powder into the grooves, scrimshanders brought those images to life—images that Herman Melville described in the pages of Moby-Dick as “lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes.” Teeth were the preferred medium, with depictions ranging from intricate displays of whaling and patriotism to artful portraits of wives and sweethearts. The museum’s collection also includes decorative items and a large number of utilitarian scrimshaw objects created for use onboard or as gifts for loved ones, including yarn winders, canes, rolling pins, and ornate pie crimpers.
Among the museum’s oldest and most valuable pieces are outstanding whaling scenes done by Nantucket-born sailors Edward Burdett and Frederick Myrick, along with numerous examples by anonymous artists. “Most of the sailors were illiterate,” Dumitru explains, “so the pieces weren’t signed or labeled.” In response, works likely carved by the same artist were determined by style or “consistent imperfections,” and curators gave him a clever nickname in tribute. For example, the “Banknote Engraver” showed meticulous attention to detail in his carving, while the “Naval Battle Captain” favored scenes of the American Revolution.
With the introduction of kerosene, the whaling industry fell into steep decline as the 19th century drew to a close, plunging the island into economic collapse. In time, Nantucket righted itself, emerging reborn as a tourist mecca yet retaining a deep and proud bow to its whaling heritage, not the least of which endures in scrimshaw’s vivid detail. How fitting that the once-discarded parts of the mighty mammal would come to serve as the canvas upon which the most enduring artistic reminders of Nantucket’s great whaling period were preserved. Scenes of life engraved into tooth and bone: An island remembers.
Nantucket Historical Association Whaling Museum. Schedule varies seasonally. 13 Broad St., Nantucket, MA. 508-228-1736; nha.org