Scrimshaws are fascinating pieces of artisan crafting — primitive artwork from the callused hands of the ordinary man.
Few are signed, but they have a deep pathos to them, human as well as animal. Executed on the by-product of one of the most loathed industries of modern times, and despite the typical dealer adage that ‘no whale was killed to make scrimshaw’, they are not for everyone.
My favourite little known fact about scrimshaws is that John F Kennedy, a passionate sailor and collector, was buried with one, a whale’s tooth over-carved for him by friend, Milton Delano.
In the 19th century whaling ships were bloody, floating factories. Roaming a huge area, abundant with hapless, slow moving sea creatures, they had on board everything needed to catch and kill a whale and to render its meat, blubber and bones.
Baleen, the cartridge like materials that forms the plankton filter on a whale’s upper jaw, was pliable and ideal for corset making and even veneer. The oil boiled down after the kill was preserved in barrels and was a staple in the old and new world for fuelling lamps and oiled the machines of the Industrial Revolution.
Spermaceti, this oil from the head of the sperm whale, produced an odourless, smokeless candle with a bright light that was highly prized. Putting aside our 21st century sensibilities about harvesting a gentle mammal in the cruelest manner imaginable — exploits at sea in the 1800s were not a Gilbert & Sullivan light opera of cheery sea shanties and sunset horn-pipes on a freshly shampooed deck. Whaling was a salty porridge of danger and boredom with little financial return for the average tar.
There are a number of a famous descriptions by American writers of the environment the men tolerated, sometimes for years at a time, including this one by J Ross Browne, writing in in 1846 in his work, ‘Etchings of a Whaling Cruise’. He describes the ‘forecastle’ under the bow where the ordinary men lived when not chasing, harpooning and eviscerating whales.
“The forecastle was black and slimy with filth, very small and hot as an oven. It was filled with a compound of foul air, smoke, sea-chests, soap-kegs, greasy pans, tainted meat.
“The ruffians (foreign sailors) were smoking, laughing, chattering and cursing the green hands who were sick. With groans on one side, and yells, oaths, laughter and smoke on the other.”
Not exactly Volvo Cork Week.
The ‘Nantucket sleigh ride’ with the agonised whale pulling an open boat of harpoonists and rowers behind, was often the last spray-lashed adventure for a young boatsteerer. By 1850, the depletion of whale stocks in the Atlantic Ocean by the now hideous, commercial scale of these operations had pushed the fleets into the Indian and Pacific, making voyages longer and more tedious than ever.
Men, lonely for home, bored and longing for a little individual focus, took up tooling and crafting during the night hours from the materials on hand, and whale teeth and the jaw bones of whales (pan bone), were obviously to hand.
Scrimshaw doesn’t describe the tooth or bone object decorated with folksy images, but the style of the ornament, the craft. It most likely started on board ships ranging out from American whaling ports. Scrimshaw is found not just on whale bone, but on horn, shells and other organic materials.
It could be incorporated into a decorated, articulated tool, like a swift (a mariner’s yarn winder), and the maker was termed a scrimshander. Though most are anonymous, Frederick Myrick (1808-1862) is the 19th century rock star of scrimshanders, and known to have carved 36 whale’s teeth. The sale of a known maker’s work is a six-figure occasion on the antiques market.
The Vikings had long fidgeted about with carved bone but the first examples of relatively modern scrimshaw are believed to have been made in the period between 1817 and 1824. The decoration was scratched (engraved) into sperm whale teeth with sail-making needles, some highlighted with a rub of ink into the marks to make the elaborate pictorials stand out.
Sailors would barter with hunters from northern waters for walrus tusk to work on too. Pieces would be set aside during making (hundreds of hours might be devoted to a project) and stored in oil until the maker returned to shore where it might be gifted or sold.
Simple book illustrations, famous characters and heroes, sweethearts and imaginary goers, maritime crossed flags, gentrified houses, whales (no surprise there), cannons and ships, even those the maker was trapped on — were favourite subjects.
A real scrimshaw, especially an early 19th century example, is a museum level find — rare and expensive. The vast majority of scrimshaws on the antique market, and that would include just about everything on Ebay, are outright fakes or honest reproductions on horn.
Ivory is so easily presented in modern resins, even experienced dealers have pause, and are forced into forensic level investigations of grain, weight and feel.
Lesser quality but genuine antiques (certified with Convention International Trade in Endangered Species CITES as original and unworked since 1947 to be legally traded), start in the area of €3,000 with a few words, a reasonable drawing and a bit of wear.
Powder boxes covered with baleen are less expensive and well worth looking out for, as are walrus tusk scrimshaws, which are as yet, less interesting to collectors unless there’s a humdinger of a scene engraved on them. If you’re lucky enough to inherit any ivory or bone antique, clean it with great care, preserving the patina that’s part of its history.