Scrimshaw: the Whalers' Art


Often associated with sailor's arts in general, scrimshaw is actually the indigenous art form of the American whaler, and one of just a few art forms native to the United States.

Whaling voyages during the 1800's typically lasted three to five years, and engraving whale's teeth and carving whalebone into useful or decorative objects became a popular pastime aboard these far-ranging ships.

Although many "ivories" were used as materials, teeth from the sperm whale were the most popular for decoration because they were plentiful, small enough-to be stowed in a sea chest, and of no commercial value. A broad range of subjects were depicted, but the most frequently seen are ship portraits, wives and sweethearts, and sea creatures.

The Museum is fortunate to have a high-quality scrimshaw collection, on loan from Richard McNish, a local businessman, active sailor and collector, and an avid Museum supporter. The collection includes seven sperm whale teeth and a round, lidded box. Two of the objects deserve mention as representative of both the original and an evolving art form, which is enjoying a resurgence in public awareness once it became known that President John F. Kennedy was an enthusiastic collector.

The first is a heavily-engraved sperm whale tooth showing two scenes: the whaling bark Brunette at sea with her boats deployed among a pod of blowing sperm whales, and again at anchor in Falmouth Harbor, Massachusetts, dated 1835. There are three inscriptions: "Death to the living - long life to the killers" (the living being the whales, the killers being the whalers?), "Success to saylors wyves and greasy luck to whalers," and "From a loving husbin to a beloved wyfe". The piece is not signed, but it appears to be original and the museum's guess is that it was done by a crew member aboard the Brunette. The Brunette, incidentally, left Falmouth on a voyage in May, 1835, under a Captain Cottle, and returned in 1837 with 700 barrels of sperm oil aboard (and presumably a lot of scrimshawed teeth).

The second is a modern piece (but done on a real tooth), commissioned by the McNishes to a scrimshander named Howard Rosenfeld, in Friday Harbor, Washington. Working from photographs, Rosenfeld did an image of the McNish boat Cheerio II, under sail and with her spinnaker set, a nice piece.

There are, of course, numerous contemporary professional artists turning out quality work, and, of late, a load of commercially-produced fakes on plastic belt buckles, buttons, and jewelry. But the museum's is the real thing, and the museum owes its thanks to the McNishes for sharing these treasures.. They are worth a closer look.

For those interested in further reading, in the museum's library are two books, "Scrimshaw: Variations on a Theme" and "History of the American Whale Fishery." The museum is located at 2731 Victoria Avenue, Oxnard, CA 93035.

Photo Credit: On loan to the Ventura County Maritime Museum by Richard McNish

Read more about the Ventura County Maritime Museum in the Resource Library


rev. 8/24/10

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