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 2. A 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.