In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, in case 111b in the Court is an example of scrimshaw. It is a sperm whale tooth, 150mm long, incised with a ship and Masonic symbols (1936.26.31). It was collected between 1800 and 1820 by Captain Edward Lawson and donated in 1936 by Charles Miskin Laing. Lawson owned South Pacific Whalers whom Janet West, of the Scott Polar Research Institute, says was active in the South Seas from 1819-1840.

Basic scrimshaw material is sperm whale (Phyceter macrocephalus) ivory or bone. These whales were hunted for their high quality oil and spermaceti (head cavity wax) for superior candles. Ambergris (grey amber), a flammable waxy substance from the intestines of sick whales was harvested for perfumes, aphrodisiacs, and medicines. Sperm whale teeth, from mature bulls, comprised 25 large conical ivory teeth either side of the jaw. An example of whale tooth scrimshaw is shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1.  Example of scrimshaw etched on a whale tooth (not in Pitt Rivers Museum).

Scrimshaw is “…the art of carving or otherwise fashioning useful or decorative articles as practised primarily by whalemen, sailors, or others associated with nautical pursuits.” (Flayderman, 1972). The engravings were highlighted with candle black, soot, or tobacco juice as pigment. Another example of a tooth is in Figure 2.


Figure 2A scrimshaw whale tooth from the Galapagos Islands (1817), not in museum.

Scrimshaw is inaccurately described as an indigenous American ‘folk art’ because mariners of other nations (e.g., England and France) were also engaged in its creation. The art developed in the whaling industry between 1817 and 1824 in the Pacific in response to market demands by Chinese traders for use in the islands. Herman Melville used the term ‘scrimshankers’ in his novel Moby Dick (1851) and was himself a onetime sailor on the New Bedford whaler called the Acushnet.

References: Flayderman, E. N. (1972). Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders Connecticut.

West J. & Credland, A. G. (1995).  Scrimshaw: the art of the whaler.  Hull City Museums.

Written for the Newsletter of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. 29.1.2010.



Filed under Museum Studies

4 responses to “Scrimshaw

  1. Juanita

    I’d like to point out that many sailors (not just whalers) practiced the art of scrimshaw. Whilst it is true that whalers used the whales teeth (and bones when they couldn’t get teeth) other sailors used timber and the bones and teeth of other animals (Like rodents) to practice their craft. My father taught me (He was a German merchant navy man) and his forebears taught him. I’m a woman and nearly 70 years young and still make scrimshaw for myself and for friends and family. Sailing was “in the blood” and when you’re at sea for extended periods of time you soon find things to do to while away the time when you’re not working your backside off!

    • Thank you for your comments. I based my little contribution on the ivory and bone scrimshaw artefacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum, in Oxford, where I used to work. We also had examples of carvings by sailors other than whalers as well as works by French prisoners of war during Napoleonic times. I wrote of our examples because they are in a poorly lit case in a lowly position. Not many visitors notice them and I wanted people to know of their craftsmanship more widely. I am only 69 years young and am pleased to have heard – especially as you still do scrimshaw. A lovely tradition to keep alive.

      • Juanita

        It’s good that you wrote about what you know and the endeavour to bring it into the light, so to speak. I’m a member of our local Lapidary club and we teach many of the crafts associated with jewellery, carving, chain making, enameling and also Scrimshaw, to name a few. By doing this we are attempting to ensure that the old crafts don’t die out.

  2. Hugo Miguel Carriço

    Hi. I doing a master teasis about Scrimshaw here in Portugal.
    I would like to know where those 2 Scrimshaw are from?
    Thank you

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