by Dr. Lori Verderame
Scrimshaw is among the oldest known art forms in North America. Practiced by the Native Americans as Native American art and taught to seafarers and sailors the world over, scrimshaw became popular in New England. New England whalers popularized the craft of scrimshaw during the 17th to the 19th Centuries. Whale bone, which was used for the construction of needles, harpoons, fishing bobbles, tools and utensils, was decorated with scrimshaw. Scrimshaw featured etched imagery highlighted with darkly inked areas. This early scrimshaw process was not unlike the beginning stages of working in the intaglio print process.
Scrimshaw is also found as the decoration of choice on thread spools, sewing kits, sewing stands, baskets including Native American baskets, baby rattles, sailor’s valentines and other objects of adornment in the 1700s and 1800s. Scrimshaw also was used to decorate boxes for pearls, gemstones, jewelry, etc. Scrimshaw was also found on hand made snuff boxes and snuff bottles. Scrimshaw objects were often marked, signed and dated. They were commonly decorated with images of ships, flags, whales, portraits of crew members and the like. Today, scrimshaw is a prominent feature on baskets including the famous Nantucket baskets, purses, pendants, earrings, and pins.
History of Scrimshaw
The history of scrimshaw goes hand in hand with the need for whale oil and the whaling industry. Sailors learned how to carve and otherwise decorate ivory, whale bone, walrus bone and tusks which sparked a trend for these decorative objects featuring the dark etched or incised design known as scrimshaw. Oil lamps were mainstays in the 1800s and scrimshaw was an artistic craft product of that industry. As electricity and other energy sources replaced whale oil for lighting, decorative whaling crafts like scrimshaw grew rare. The small whaling crews who made scrimshaw in their spare time on New England ships were soon replaced by large crews working on steam powered ships. Similarly, the need for scrimshaw-decorated powder horns was deemed unnecessary by the late 1870s when various firing cartridges replaced the need for gun powder and powder horns featuring scrimshaw decoration.
What to Look For
When selecting a piece of scrimshaw or an antique featuring scrimshaw decoration, consider the scrimshaw image carefully. Using a magnifying glass, look at the scrimshaw design and seek out a good, sharp contrast between the dark ink and the ivory or whale bone. Look for a dark colored scrimshaw design against a bright white or off-white piece of whale bone, ivory, tusk, or baleen.
The image should be realistic in its representation of a figure, person, or animal. Subjects which relate to the whaling industry are typically the most highly sought after when it comes to collectible scrimshaw. Some popular and desirable scrimshaw imagery is: historic ships on the high seas, marine seascapes, whales, large ocean animals, shells, portraits of a fleet’s captain or a crew member, etc. The evidence of non-maritime or non-marine subject matter will help you date your piece of antique or vintage scrimshaw as alternative subjects such as these are typical of the 20th Century rather than common to the 18th or 19th Centuries.
Look for pieces of scrimshaw in good condition with highly detailed carving showing master craftsmanship. Stray scratches, inclusions, or improper markings and condition issues will devalue a piece of scrimshaw.
Get an online appraisal of your scrimshaw from Dr. Lori.