WHAT IS SCRIMSHAW?
Although the word has had many meanings through the years, today it is generally used to describe hand-carved objects made of (or scenes engraved on) whalebone, whale teeth or walrus tusks. It is also applied to any sailor-made item such as dippers made from coconut shells, corset busks (stiffeners) made of baleen, etc. Carving on bone has been with us since the stone age, but the art flourished during the 18th century, particularly as a result of American whaling voyages lasting three years or more. Ancient mariners etched scenes on tooth, bone, horn, shell, wood, stone to create scrimshaw. Their painstaking engravings are better appreciated considering the use of only hand tools (or lack thereof) and harsh offshore conditions. The fine lines of these engravings were then filled with oil pigmented with lampblack to accent the finely carved details.
In the 19th century the art started to decline aboard ship, but was continued ashore by retired mariners using more highly refined techniques. In 1973 the United States banned the entry of whale products in an attempt to save the endangered species, but contemporary scrimshaw is still being produced by artists. Their work is often displayed in museums, where it stands on its own artistic merit. These pieces are often scrimmed on fossil ivory.
Examples of real scrimshawed whale's teeth carved by the legendary Frederick Myrick, a crewman aboard the famed whaler Susan, have sold for upwards of $40,000. A world record price was also set for antique scrimshaw, when a tooth by Edward Burdett sold at a Skinner's auction for $60,250.