For 19th-century New England sailors, life aboard whaling ships tended to get rather tedious. Voyages could last years, with weeks or months between sightings; living conditions were lamentable, quarters were cramped. To while away their time, many seamen took to scratching whale teeth or bones with crude needles and other tools in what is considered America's only original art form.
Scrimshaw and its seafaring roots are well known, although the word's origin remains a mystery. Some believe it is derived from “scrimshank,” an old British slang term that means to shirk one's duties; however, the latter can only be traced to the mid-1800s, while scrimshaw is mentioned in print as early as 1776. Perhaps the word was born from the similar surname, which dates back to the 12th century. Regardless, Herman Melville details the art form in Moby Dick (1851), describing “lively sketches of whales and whaling scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm-Whale teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone and other like skrimshander articles....” (“Scrimshander” denotes one who scrimshaws.)
Besides corset busks, these “little ingenious contrivances,” as Melville called them, included all manners of boxes, thimbles, clothespins, hinges, tool handles, jewelry, umbrellas, and walking sticks; kitchen implements, particularly pie crimpers or “jagging wheels,” were quite popular. Many combined precious stones and other prized materials. The artistic skills displayed ranged from elemental to elaborately ornate—yarn swifts, miniature grandfather clocks used to hold pocket watches, birdcages, and even banjos and violins with ivory fittings. Some of the most revered pieces are giant whale teeth engraved with portraits, ships, sea creatures, and other intricately detailed scenes.
Scrimshawed items were made as gifts for loved ones and trinkets to sell in foreign ports. First, the sailors would scrape any imperfections from the teeth or bone, then polish them smooth. They used pocket knives or crude needles to engrave the images, rubbing in soot, gun powder, and even tobacco to bring their designs to life. During their whaling adventures, these seamen introduced scrimshaw to the aboriginal people of Alaska, who mastered the technique.
By the late 1800s, the whaling industry was in decline and, with it, scrimshaw. A hundred years later, however, the art form experienced a rebirth thanks to President John F. Kennedy, an avid collector who displayed his toothy treasures in the Oval Office. Scrimshaw continues to be a popular craft, although the materials have changed from whale (and then elephant) ivory to bone and antlers used from non-endangered species such as cattle or water buffalo, as well as shells, nuts, and manmade materials. Walrus and mammoth ivory and moose antlers are commonly used in Alaska.