History of Scrimshaw



Scrimshaw is considered an American art form. The whalers took up this hobby as a way to pass time on the long voyages away from home. The sailors were considered to be "shirking their duties" as a result of this activity. That phrase became the definition of scrimshaw.

On the 3 to 5 year journey at sea, boredom would set in as whales were not always sighted. Months could pass between kills. So the sailors began to take what was at hand (whales teeth, sail needles or a knife, lamp black) and scratch artwork into the ivory.

The preparation time was lengthy as the rough roots of the teeth had to be sanded down and the ivory hand polished before the scratches could be administered. The men who make scrimshaw are called "Scrimshanders".

These scrimshanders produced many beautiful and practical pieces of art for their loved ones at home, using whale bone as well as ivory to make stays for their women folks corsets, along with many other useful items that helped family members to remember their loved ones in their long absences. Boxes, jewelry, games, baskets, sailing tools all were creatively made by common sailors.


Scrimshaw has been done in various forms by many peoples, African, Scandinavian, Native Americans, Inuit etc., but none made the art form as widely known, as popular, or as valued as the scrimshaw produced during the whaling era of America.

People began to collect scrimshaw for they saw its beauty and value as a form of art that could last through the centuries. Since ivory is a canvas that would last for eons if taken care of correctly, scrimshaw art may be passed from one generation to another as a treasured inheritance.

Today, whaling scenes, ships, sailors and mermaids are not the only things that are scratched into the ivory. Just about anything you would see painted has been portrayed in ivory. Color has been introduced to the art form, no longer limiting creativity to just a black and white medium.

While straight lines were only used for years, today a technique called stippling is done. Also microscopes and engraving machines have been introduced to the hand process to speed up production, profitability, and quality. Nevertheless, an artistic eye, patience, and exceptional hand eye coordination are still required to produce this kind of art.


While hunting may not be as necessary for our survival as in centuries past, the excesses of a few hunters brought about the Marine Mammal Act as an effort to protect animals with ivory. Now many scrimshanders have found ivory harder to obtain, though it is not illegal to own.

There are restrictions on owning certain types of ivory. It depends upon the area collected, the age of the ivory, and the genetic heritage of the collector. Therefore, most scrimshaw is now done on fossil ivories (Mammoth and Walrus). These legal limitations have led to a prejudice against owning scrimshaw among a portion of the population. The result being a reduction in the sale and availability of ivory.

To loose the art form completely would be grievous to many. Unless there is a change in societies acceptance of using the resource of fossil ivories, Scrimshaw may become a lost art. Only time will tell as to the future of Scrimshaw. Let`s hope it endures as long as man still walks the earth!


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