Herman Melville

What Is Scrimshaw?

Scrimshaw is an art form Yankee whalers developed by incising designs on whalebone or teeth to fill long hours of idle time between whale hunts. Although most scrimshaw pieces were intended as homecoming gifts for loved ones, whalers would occasionally sell their works at a foreign port if cash was needed. Though most museum pieces are dated in the early 1800’s, it has been traced back to 16th century Dutch whalers. The origin of the word “scrimshaw” to this day is unknown.

Using techniques established hundreds of years ago by their forefathers, scrimshanders (one who creates scrimshaw) now perform at a level never dreamed of before. Artists today have the luxury of proper lighting, instruments and atmosphere. Their hands are tuned to fine quality craftsmanship rather than the harsh elements of life at sea.

Materials incised on vary. Whale teeth are legal for purchase within one’s own state. Elephant ivory is also utilized so long as it has not been imported from ouside the U.S. since 1989. Most commonly however, the dwindling supply of fossil ivories is the favorite these days, because of its “environmentally correct” status. Fossil walrus ivory is excavated by the Siberian Yupik Eskimo from their old village sites on the Bering Strait of Alaska. Mammoth and mastodon ivories are excavated in interior Alaska. These materials are thousands of years old, and come from animals that roamed prior to the last ice age. They have a beauty and patina uniquely their own, from minerals absorbed from the earth where they’ve lain for so many years.

Incorporating sophisticated stippling techniques along with traditional line incising, today’s artists continue scrimshawing for the love of it, and to perpetuate a traditional American folk-art.

Scrimshaw can be created by anyone, however superior levels of quality are very difficult to obtain. The finest quality scrimshanders appear to be an elite few with careers that exceed twenty-five years over a scribe. The present generation of scrimshaw artists in all likelihood will be the last because of dwindling ivory materials. They are also, without a doubt, producing some of the finest quality scrimshaw ever created.


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