A History of the Art of Scrimshaw

Scrimshaw is an art form with a long history. Early man hunted the wooly mammoth and mastodon for food. The beautiful tusks were used to make tools and talismans which were believed to carry the protective spirit of the animal. Early Egyptians and Eskimos alike utilized the ivories in their environments and carved them into useful and decorative pieces.

In the early nineteenth century, ships sailed the seas to hunt for whales. The sailors were often away from home for months, even years at a time. Some sailors used their idle time to carve whale teeth and bones. The work was mostly crude; lines cut with pocketknives or sail needles depicted mainly nautical themes. The lines were filled with squid ink or lampblack to contrast with the light ivory. From the varied dialects of the ocean whalers, this new pastime came to be known as scrimshaw.

Here is Linda's version of a traditional whaling scene. This piece of elephant ivory is 4" wide.

Scrimshaw virtually disappeared when whaling ended. Nearly a century later, President Kennedy collected historical scrimshaw and commissioned artists to create new works for his collection. Scrimshaw saw a revival and began to evolve as new artists were attracted to this unique form of art. Today, fine tools are used with a variety of pigments in a full pallet of colors to produce works of lasting beauty.

Current laws prohibit me from selling any item made in whole or part of elephant ivory across state lines. Some individual states have banned sales of products made of any type of ivory. I will not sell elephant ivory outside my home state of Texas. Whales and walrus are protected under the Marine Mammals’ Act so no byproducts can be sold. USFWS has provided discussion of the rule, along with a table describing enforcement and all of the criteria for exceptions, at: http://www.fws.gov/international/pdf/questions-and-answers-african-elephant-4d-final-rule.pdf. Read the full document in the Federal Register in effect July 6, 2016 https://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FWS-HQ-IA-2013-0091-0001

The famous whaling ship Charles Morgan is scrimshawed on a 3" tall whales tooth.


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