Scrimshaw for a lass

Scrimshaw for a lass

Scrimshaw is the handiwork created by sailors when they cleaned, polished and decorated the bones and teeth of whales (and sometimes walruses).  This example was found during an excavation on Fishmarket Road in 1890.  It was probably carved by a sailor for his girlfriend.

More about Scrimshaw and Whaling

Whaling was big business in the 19th century. Whale oil was then almost the only source of oil for lubricating, lamps and candlelight.  The best oil came from sperm whales which have about 40 teeth; they are usually from 4 to 6 inches long but can go up to 11 inches.

Sailors on whalers had more spare time than other sailors.  Their work was very dangerous and could not be done at night, and a  voyage on a whaling ship could last several years – until the hold was filled with barrels of oil.  So there were many hours to fill between the bursts of excitement and danger when whales were being harpooned.  Using the byproducts of  marine life was a way to fill the time and scrimshaw was one of the more notable outcomes.    

Pictures and letters were engraved on the bone or tooth  and then highlighted. Originally the ‘artists’ used  crude sailing needles. and then brought their etchings into view with candle black, soot or tobacco juice. The movement of the ship and range of levels of skill produced work of varying quality. A great many pieces in museums are anonymous.

First posted in From Our Collection on 8th February 2013
Last updated: 13th February 2013