|Right Whale -the right whale
to hunt because it was a lethargic swimmer and a good source of baleen.
The art of carving or constructing decorative, often useful, objects as done by whalemen, sailors, and seafarers during the age of whaling (in America, 1700's
to the 1860's). The basic materials were those derived from whaling but they
also included shells, various forms of sea life, the wide range of materials
gathered in ports-of- call, and the materials carried aboard ships including
metals and woods. The artifact must have one or more nautical associations with
respect to the maker, motif, method, or material to render it authentic
|Because of the great demand for scrimshaw collectibles, there are a lot of
fakes in the marketplace including plastic reproductions.
Authentic Scrimshaw Materials
by Rod Cardoza
It is relatively easy to distinguish ivory, bone, and baleen from one another.
Baleen, called "whale bone" during the whaling era, is a flexible, striated
material occurring in tapered "hairy" plates up to 16 feet in length and a foot
wide. It varies in color from jet black and gray to greenish brown, greenish
yellow, to a semi opaque yellow. It is fibrous and examination of an end piece
will reveal a
"grain" not unlike the end grain of porous wood. Baleen can be polished to a
lustrous surface similar to plastic in appearance. Indeed, baleen was the
"plastic" of the 19th century, being used in a variety of manufactured goods
from toothbrushes to umbrellas and corset stays. Its acquisition was the
mainstay of whaling during the waning years of that industry.
BONE OR IVORY?
It is a little trickier to tell the difference between bone and ivory. In
particular, pan bone, the flared spoon like rear portion of the sperm whale jaw,
was the second most popular scrimshaw material of the whalemen. Only the whale
teeth themselves were more prized. The reason was that the pan is the largest
and densest bone occurring in nature and lent itself to being cut, carved, and
engraved in large segments. Many objects made of pan bone are incorrectly
labeled as "ivory" by the unknowledgeable.
Under moderate magnification all bone
exhibits grain like parallel striations, dark flecks of dried blood, and
minuscule cavities (all not present in ivory). Ivory, being most dense, will
reveal a smooth, homogeneous surface, free from occlusions and flecks. However,
old polished whale ivory often has acquired a light yellow to golden brown
patina which evidences itself in the wavy, irregular grain patterns of the
enamel and dentin of the tooth.
Scrimshaw was a sailor's answer to idle hours and weeks
spent at sea waiting for the excitement and danger of capturing a whale.
With a jackknife or sail needle, he fashioned marvels in ivory and bone.
Scrimshaw's diversity demanded the skills of a good carver, joiner,
and inlayer. It also demanded a lot of time. Time to scrape a whale's
tooth clean, time to polish it with sharkskin or ashes, time to incise a
design and bring it out with India ink, diluted lampblack, soot from try
pots, tar, or even tobacco juice.
TYPES OF IVORY
Differentiating between the types of ivories is most difficult. Antique ivory
came from five primary source mammals. In the order they most commonly appear in
antique items, they are elephant, walrus, whale, boar, and hippopotamus. Of
only whale ivory is referred to as "teeth" while the others are the elongated
Most ivory, virtually all Oriental and Indian ivory is from elephant tusks.
Elephant ivory in general bears smooth, tight, and regularly occurring surface
striations. This striation or grain is subtle and can often be seen
as translucent. The end grain of elephant ivory is particularly telling,
recurring as "crossed arches" in a regular crisscross
Walrus ivory is distinctive in that the outer enamel layer is dense white with
little graining (as in whale ivory), while the softer inner dentin "core" has a
granular, tapioca like appearance. Generally walrus ivory can be identified
because of the stark contrast between the two layers of the tusk as formed.
However, if a small object is fashioned out of the enamel layer of the tusk,
omitting any dentin, it is little distinguishable from whale ivory.
As might be expected, the majority of Eskimo-produced ivory artifacts were
fashioned of Walrus tusks. However, late in the 19th and on into the early 20th
centuries, it is documented that American whalers in the arctic took thousands
of pounds of walrus ivory. This raw material eventually found its way into
commercial trade in the form of walking sticks, umbrella handles, cutlery, etc.
Whale tooth is near enough like the other types of ivory as to be easily
confused. Size is the easiest distinguishing characteristic. Whale teeth range
in size from 3 to II inches in length (although larger examples exist!) and
their length to width ratio is smaller than that of elephant or walrus tusks.
The surface grain and color can often be nearly identical to tusk. But one very
telling difference in whale ivory, either cut or whole, is the frequent
existence of circular nodules or polyps in the root cavity of the tooth.
Boar tusks most commonly are in evidence in today's antique marketplace as cane
handles and corkscrews.
Hippo tusk is the hardest of all ivory and also the rarest. The tusk is so hard
that it can be made to spark steel, and for this reason was little used except
by the most determined artisans. Hippo ivory has a smooth cream colored
appearance with a very fine grain. The shape and size of the tusk is most
telling as almost all are under a foot long and distinctively curved (describing
the arc of a circle) along their entire length. Of course this does not preclude
small sections from being squared up, as in the case of other ivories. But with
hippo, the dimensions would be limited to 2 or 3 inches.
Other animal materials used less extensively in scrimshaw were sea tortoise
shell, a variety of sea shells like abalone and mother of pearl, shark and ray
skin, seal skin albatross bills, sawfish and swordfish bills, and coral. Each of
these has distinctive characteristics, which make them easy to identify.