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  Issue Date: 12 / 2017  
 

Scrimshaw, as American as Jazz



James Dorsey
 

Whale Bone Yarn Spinners. Image courtesy James Dorsey. Click image to enlarge.

       After Jazz, Scrimshaw just might rank as America’s most unique art form.
       
       Some debate the origins of the word, thinking it comes from ‘scrimp’ meaning to save, and “shaw” meaning to sand or saw, but the most popular acceptance is from the British slang, “scrimshanker,” referring to one who wastes time. That, of course, would only apply if you think creating art is wasting time.
       
       We do know that it developed at sea on board whaling ships whose sailors used their spare time carving whale bones to replace or make new tools and various wooden parts of the ship, sometimes ever a chair or stool, and there exist early 19th century ships’ journals in which the captains refer to this type of work as scrimshaw.
       
       Hand carved and decorated whale bones can be traced back to the early 19th century when it was popular to use them for ladies corset busks, bird cages, walking sticks, pie rolling pins, jewelry, and even furniture; but purists insist this is not scrimshaw.
       
       Today, many divide scrimshaw into categories, such as “architectural, landscape, or portraiture.” Over time, the most popular form seems to have become portraiture, and the golden age for that school was from about 1830-49, coinciding with the height of the whaling epic.


Finney Carved Walrus Tusks. Image courtesy James Dorsey. Click image to enlarge.

       
       In the classic sense, scrimshaw is associated with incised and inked whales’ teeth or walrus tusks. Surprisingly enough, it was American President John F. Kennedy, a most serious collector of scrimshaw more than a half century ago, who really brought it to the publics’ attention as he displayed several fine specimens on his desk in the oval office.
       
       The earliest known example of this work comes to us from 1817 and is attributed to Edward Burdett, who today, is considered one of the finest, “scrimshanders,” but most would agree that the greatest of all time is Nathaniel Sylvester Finney.
       
       As a young man, Finney crewed on whaling ships from 1830-57. Where those voyages took him is uncertain but he “Spent time on the beach” in the Pacific to use his own words. Later in life, the city directory of Plymouth Ma, where he was born listed him as a painter, but no such known works survive him. That may have been done because at the time no one knew what a scrimshander was.
       
       He is considered the art forms’ most accomplished technician, but he only ever reproduced copies of other peoples’ work. That is not to take away from his accomplishments though. He would begin by soaking the whale tooth in brine to keep it subtle. Then he would sand or saw off all uneven protrusions, especially end root end to make a flat base. The entire surface was made smooth with pumice, although many old salts preferred to use sharkskin. Finally, it would be hand rubbed with an oiled cloth.
       
       Then spreading the photo of the image being reproduced over the tooth he would prick an outline of dots with his sail needle. Later he would incise the tooth from dot to dot with his knife, leaving fine trenches that he would later fill with lampblack or maybe just soot and a little water, rubbing away the excess to leave the final image in the tiny trenches. For Portraits, he would just prick millions of tiny dots to fill in with the image of a face.
       
       His portraits are almost photo real. Some colored work was produced using tobacco juice, vegetable dyes and colored inks, usually the kind used by tattooists. When his whaling days were over, Finney opened a studio in San Francisco, producing works on commission, and became the first scrimshander to make a decent, full time, living from it. Finney died in 1879, a highly successful artist. Today his work that is not in private collections resides in three separate whaling museums. Not even one image or self portrait survives.
       
       Surprisingly though, many high quality scrimshaw pieces have been attributed to convicts. This makes sense when you consider in whaling days shipboard life was quite dull and offenses that could get you time in the brig were plentiful. Even convicts in land based prisons who were former whalers have left behind some very fine works. One piece in particular shows a rendering of a matronly lady on one side and a young girl wearing a sarong on a beach on the other; it is incised with the caption, “To our wives and sweathearts, may they never meet.”
       
       Today, it is illegal to take whales teeth so most of the new scrimshaw being produced is on petrified walrus tusks, but some artists are returning to bone that is much more plentiful, particularly deer bones.
       
       As we become more enlightened about killing these animals, it is equally important to remember the art form it left behind as a history lesson.
       
       Many museums around the world display fine scrimshaw but in the United States three have outstanding collections:
       
       1. The New Bedford whaling Museum, Massachusetts.
       2. The Nantucket Whaling Museum, Nantucket Island
       3. The Mariners Museum, Newport News Virginia.
       


James Michael Dorsey is an award winning author, explorer, photographer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 46 countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world. His work can be seen on the web at jamesdorsey.com.
 
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