While the origin of the word “scrimshaw” is uncertain, it has been used since revolutionary times (scrimshaw is mentioned in “The Spectator, Volume 8” from 1776). It is defined in the 19th century book “On Many Seas: the Life and Exploits of a Yankee Sailor” as “A scrimshaw is any fancy article made by sailors in their liesure hours; engraved whales teeth, baskets, fancy ropework, and the like are all scrimshaws. The term is also used as a verb, as ‘to scrimshaw’ etc. “. The surname scrimshaw goes back even further. Sailors would often bring their scrimshaw to the different ports to sell or trade for supplies, or bring them home, depending on the price they could get. Scrimshaw, as noted in the definition above included carvings. Pie crimpers were a favorite, as were bodkins (used for making holes in canvas, or working knots), thimbles, corn huskers, and handles for many items. Some of the most difficult creations were the “swifts” – intricate contraptions used for wrapping silk and yarn (see “A Treasury of American Scrimshaw” for an amazing collection of creations made in this era). Both whale bone and teeth were used for creating these items. Very little went to waste: ambergis, a bilary secretion of the intestines of the sperm whale was also collected and used after it was aged in the perfumes and as medications (see wikipedia: ambergris). Sperm whale meat was tough and unpleasant, unlike baleen, and was therefore ground up and used as chum for whales and as a stock feed additive.
As whales became more difficult to find, the voyages of the whaling ships became longer, stretching in some instances up to five years, reaching as far south as Cape Horn. Elephant ivory was often used for carvings and larger items, including billiard balls. Piano keys were also covered with ivory, mainly from elephant tusks.
In the mid-1800’s, the whaling industry was starting to decline. This was due to three factors: the gold rush in California lured many men away from the hard life and many years at sea; the Civil War took its toll in lives as well as whaling ships, since mostly northerners owned these vessels, they became an easy target for the southerners; and petroleum was beginning to replace the oil as technology and methods were created to refine the crude to the consistency of the fine spermicetti oils often used for intricate machinery and watches. Paraffin, discovered in the 1830’s and after a chemist discovered how to separate the waxy substance began replacing whale oil candles in the 1850’s.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s when John F. Kennedy, an avid scrimshaw collector, brought the nearly lost art back into fashion, often displaying his collection in the oval office. One book (now out of print but available from Abe Books) goes into great detail about the 37 piece collection of this former President of the United States.
Today, scrimshaw as an artform survives thanks to dedicated artists and hobbyists. Plying their craft on mammoth ivory, pre-embargo elephant ivory, ostrich eggs, man made materials and tagua nut (a sustainable ivory substitute), the artwork ranges from ornate line art to photo realistic in both black and white and color.