A short history of Scrimshaw and Our Materials
The art of scrimshaw is considered to be the only truly American Folk Art. The term “scrimshaw” came into usage in the logbooks of the early American whalers in the later 1700’s and early 1800’s. It was coined to describe the art of carving on ivory or bone that was practiced by the whale men to pass time between whale sightings.
These whaling expeditions sometimes lasted 3 or 4 years with larges amounts of down time in between whale hunts. The primary goal of these hunts was the oil produced by rendering down the blubber of the whale, and the ambergris (a black tarry substance used in the production of perfume). A by product of the hunt was the bones and teeth of the whale, which was given to the sailors to carve. This served the dual purpose of keeping them out of trouble on the voyage and providing them with a saleable product to increase their earnings at the voyages end.
The men would take the raw sperm whale teeth, smooth down the rough outer ridges with knives and use shark skin as a natural sandpaper to smooth it further. The final stop before starting to scrim was to polish the tooth with chamois.
The earliest scrimshanders sometimes used a crude version of the stipple method, which is pricking small holes into the ivory and filling them with pigment. A more common method was using their sailors needles to carve lines into the teeth which they also filled with pigment. Different pigments were used according to what was available. For black they used lamp black, a combination of carbon and whale oil. Tea, vinegar, berries and octopus dye were also used to provide a change of color.
Subject matter varies from tales of a whale hunt gone wrong to portraits of their wives and sweethearts. The bone and ivory was made into various practical the frivolous objects, including corset stays, hat boxes, rolling pins, swifts, cooking utensils, cribbage boards and as many other things as their imaginations could come up with.
While the first scrimshaw was mostly done on whale bone and teeth, other ivories were substituted as available. Elephant, hippo and walrus ivories were not uncommon. Today we use a variety of ivories, woolly mammoth, fossil walrus, hippo, antique piano keys and ivory cue balls, pre-embargo elephant ivory as well as antler bone, buffalo horn and other ivory substitutes. From these are created intricate pieces of jewelry, pocket knives and display pieces.