INEVITABLY, SCRIMSHAW calls to mind the whaling days of Nantucket and New Bedford and brings with it echoes of Melville’s “Moby Dick.” It is a term of American origin applied to craft work made aboard ship, usually a whaler, in a variety of materials, including marine ivory, baleen, even wood.
The great years of American whaling were from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s. There were interminable hours of boredom on the voyages that lasted as long as three or four years. And the word scrimshaw is believed to have evolved from a Dutch expression meaning a lazy person. A scrimshaw project often took months to complete.
The best marine ivory is obtained from the sperm whale, whose lower jaw may contain 40 or 50 sharply pointed and curved teeth. Sailors also used the teeth of other animals, such as the killer whale and elephant seal. And walrus ivory, too, was traded by the Eskimos to whalers in Alaskan waters.
From such material, the artists created an array of articles: boxes, chessmen, embroidery and knitting tools, kitchen articles such as ladles, pastry crimps and rolling pins, and special items such as back scratchers, picture frames, thimbles, salt cellars, buttons, toys--even engraved false teeth.
One of the most popular artifacts was the busk. This was a long, oblong slip of whalebone, engraved with designs, to be used as part of a corset. Busks were favorite presents from sailors to their wives or girlfriends. However, the most familiar piece of decorative scrimshaw found today is the whale’s tooth engraved with a black-line etching, usually of a ship under sail.
Most sailors/ artisans began by grinding the ridges off the whale’s tooth with a file or sandpaper (often a piece of sharkskin). Then they placed transparent paper over the tooth so that they could outline a picture (often taken from Godey’s Lady’s Book or Harper’s Weekly) by punching small holes.With a sharpened nail or a sail needle, they would join the holes by making minute scratches, which they would fill with India ink or lampblack. Sometimes, tobacco juice, gunpowder or the green corrosion from copper pots were used. Finally, they would buff the finished product with china clay and whale oil.
No two pieces of scrimshaw are alike, and each represents a strong individual vision, and simple in design.
Antique scrimshaw can be found at Doris Lewis and Millstein’s General Store, both in West Los Angeles; Robbins Antique Mart in Pomona; Century Antiques in Glendale; Pasadena Antique Center in Pasadena; Antiques and Nautical in Newport Beach, and Treasure Trove in San Diego.