The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

The Mystery of Scrimshaw (1989)

Catalog essay for an exhibition of scrimshaw from The Barbara Johnson Whaling Collection at the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, May 1989.

Whale catching is an ancient enterprise which reached its penultimate technical and commercial zenith in the middle years of the 19th century, died out around the turn of the 20th and revived thereafter in different form. Whales were caught for the oil rendered from the blubber under their skin, which was, and still is, the best oil for lighting. The finest oil came from the head and blubber for the Sperm whale, and the high value of sperm oil and spermaceti gave rise to the great Pacific whale fisher of the 19th century.

The teeth and lower jawbone of the Sperm whale are the "whale ivory" and "whale bone" of scrimshaw. Scrimshaw, the folk art of the American whaleman, was born with the Pacific Sperm whale fishery, flourished with it and declined as the industry waned after the Civil War. Although scrimshaw has been made in one form or another to this day, its dynamic life cycle was rather like that of a person born around 1800.

The early whalers were resourceful, hard-working men who lived when almost everything was made, fixed and worked by hand. They had to "make do." The whaleman was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of one. Whaling required him to endure weeks or months of suffocating rote work and inactivity punctuated by frenzied days and nights of catching, killing, cutting-in, boiling, repairing, coopering and stowing. His skill was his pride and it was the life-blood of the whaling business. Ineptitude was contemptible; idleness was a sin. Scrimshaw-making fulfilled the urge to work and produce and demonstrate ingenuity as the ship meandered around a million square miles of tropical ocean in search of whales. This need to be occupied is why scrimshaw so obsessed the whalers and why so much of it is so very fine.

Materials were plentiful. They had, besides whale ivory and whale bone, baleen, (the horn-like plates which hand from the roof of the mouth of the Baleen whale), mother-of-pearl, tortoise shell, coin silver and half a hundred exotic tropical woods. Later they had walrus ivory, abalone shell and much else. The tools of the carpenter, boatwright and blacksmith were everywhere at hand. Facility was a cultural assumption and time stretched out before the whaleman like the endless ocean itself.

Although the whaling ship at sea was a world of its own, its isolation was often interrupted. Most of the whalemen were from northeastern towns such as Nantucket and New Bedford and they got together whenever and wherever they could. Ships sighting each other on common whaling grounds came together for "gams." They gathered by the dozens in the provisioning ports of the South Seas. Men who deserted or were put ashore sick from one vessel shipped on another. One captain's wife wrote that she saw more of her friends on a voyage than she did at home. We know that gossip and the exchange of news and mail were accompanied by much discussion, comparison and giving and trading of scrimshaw. If the ship at sea was a scrimshaw "workshop," then the get-togethers were scrimshaw "exhibits."

It is easy to see how scrimshaw, once it appeared as a distinct species of sailor's fancy work, spread and evolved very quickly. We know quite a bit about the rise of the industry that gave rise to scrimshaw but almost nothing of the early history of the art form itself. The very word "scrimshaw" is impossibly obscure and its origin has been the victim of much feckless speculation in recent years. It is the final version of a term that came up in or was adopted by sailor's slang in the late 18th or early 19th century. No one knows where or when it first appeared. The earliest known manuscript reference - "All hands employed scrimshonting"- was entered in the log of the brig By Chance out of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, on May 20th, 1826 - when scrimshaw was already in full bloom - and the word did not find its way into slang dictionaries until after about 1850, by which time its beginnings were lost in the depths of time. I think that "scrimshaw" is a vernacular conflation of "scriven" (written, inscribed) and "horn" into "scrivenshorn," and that it was first applied to professional horn work or to the decorated powder horns which preceded scrimshaw engraving. There is the early manuscript form "scrimshorn" to bolster this theory, and the long-time opinion, held into the 1950s and 1960s, that carved scrimshaw pieces were "ditties," "whimsies," "fancies" or "haberdashery," and that only engraved (scriven) scrimshaw was properly called "scrimshaw."

Manuscript references to scrimshaw are scarce and always brief because logbooks were business reports to owners who made no money from scrimshaw. Private journals are rare in the early days of whaling. Some later journals have day-to-day mention of scrimshaw, but never tell us much about how it was made.

Printed references are even scarcer. There are none at all before about 1835 and none at anytime in the 19th century which detail the scrimshaw-making process. In his "Letters to an American Farmer," published in 1782, Crevecouer comments on the mechanical ingenuity of the natives of Nantucket and the "variety of little bowls and other implements, executed cooperwise, with the greatest neatness and elegance" on long whaling voyages. Although he was writing about work in wood we hereby learn that the early whalers were busy with fancy work, and we also learn, by omission, that the materials were not from the whale. Crevecouer's chapter on 18th century Nantucket are necessary reading for the student of scrimshaw; no other account so well describes the social environment which gave birth to the art form. If Crevecouer had visited Nantucket in 1835 and had written about scrimshaw we would be considerably more enlightened.

There is a narrative poem about a whaling voyage of 1823 which mentions scrimshaw but it was written a half-century later and uses the modern from of the word; I don't think it can be taken seriously as history. Many of the later allusions to scrimshaw, such as the oft-quoted paragraph in chapter 57 of Moby Dick, were written more in the service of dramatic narrative than accuracy, and the 20th century accounts, removed, as they must be, from the vital time of creation, usually are romanticized guesswork.

Furthermore, in 25 years of looking, I have seen only three genuine 19th century photographs of scrimshaw; two are portraits of men holding ivory-handled canes and the third is an 1880s shot of the interior of a San Francisco bar decorated with engraved whale's teeth and walrus tusks. A photograph of a "youthful crewman" at work on a whale's tooth with a jackknife has appeared in the literature, wishfully dated "ca. 1890." It is awkwardly posed and shows a complete ignorance of scrimshaw carving. It may be a publicity still from one of the silent films made about whaling in the 1920s.

So, like it or not, the student of scrimshaw is more archaeologist than historian, venturing cautious conclusions from stylistic characteristics of usually undated objects, supplemented by meager contemporary reports and often unreliable printed accounts. All we can do is point to the likely.

Engraved (never "etched") scrimshaw - incised linear drawings on whale bone, whale ivory and baleen - was probably inspired by engraved powder horns, which are similar in shape to whale's teeth and common at the time. The earliest known dated engraved teeth fully within the tradition are the famous "Susan's Teeth," done on board the ship Susan of Nantucket in 1828 and 1829 by Frederick Myrick. There is another tooth probably done earlier on the same voyage by Mr. Myrick which is engraved all around, like a powder horn, rather than along the vertical axis. There is evidence that baleen was worked into engraved boxes by Nantucket sailors before bone and ivory were engraved. These also may have served as precedent.

Carved scrimshaw - scrimshaw that is sawed, filed, turned, fitted or inlaid - probably derives from "prisoner-of-war" work. During the Napoleonic wars and the war of 1812 there were thousands of war prisoners in English prisons. Among them were professional French ivory workers, many from Dieppe, who instigated what is know and collected then and now as "prisoner-of-war" work: usually small, often exquisitely complex pieces made from beef and mutton bone, wood, straw and other available materials. The close, insular environment of the prison was like that of the whaling ship and provided similar conditions for making fancy work. Because many of the prisoners were seamen, and because American whalemen "did time" with the French ivory workers, it is reasonable to surmise that the idea, if not the style, of fancy scrimshaw carving came out of those English prisons. Apart from a few atypical and very early pieces of carved whale ivory and whale bone, there is little else to go on.

Though its origins are veiled in the past, scrimshaw is real and present in great variety. Once started it elaborated into many forms: canes, busks, jagging wheels, knitting needles, thread holders, pickwicks, fids and bodkins, dippers, swifts, baskets and boxes, and all kinds of sailor's tools and fittings. As the century progressed, scrimshaw lost the simple cursive grace brought over from the 18th century, and, except for items of shipboard utility, turned stiff and ornate, turned "Victorian." Take note of the relationship between style and date of the pieces in the Brandywine River Museum's exhibition.

Collecting scrimshaw is exciting and risky. There is much bone and ivory work offered as scrimshaw which is not scrimshaw (identification gravitates toward price in the antique business), and a learned feeling for the character of scrimshaw is essential. There are also many fakes, often very good fakes, which not only confound the novice but also occupy an ever-larger proportion of the "pool" of scrimshaw, thereby making it more difficult to acquire a good "eye." There are collections comprised largely of fakes simply because the collector could not find enough genuine scrimshaw on the market to establish regular working comparisons. And there are the many excellent plastic reproductions sold by museums. All this confusion is compounded by the rather astonishing lack of worthy reference material. The beginner should tread cautiously.

Before its dispersal at auction some years ago, the Barbara Johnson Whaling Collection was the finest of its kind in the world. The scrimshaw in it was distinguished because it was unique, unusual or historical as well as merely spectacular. We see these characteristics here on a smaller scale, in an exhibit of scrimshaw either not sent to auction or bought since. There is nothing run-of-the-mill here. This is a rare chance to see a sampling of scrimshaw at its best.