Arts and Culture
Food and Wine
People and Places
Science and Nature
Travel and Lodging
New Hampshire
Rhode Island
Home » HISTORY » MAINE » Scrimshaw - The Art of the Seas
A steam powered whale catcher with harpoon cannon circa 1900
Scrimshaw - The Art of the Seas

By Michael F. Bisceglia, Jr. | December 06, 2010

Say the word “whaling” today, and you might just start a brawl. Politics aside, the fact remains that whaling and New England are very much tied together.

The Charles W. Morgan was a whaleship built in 1841
BY & COPYRIGHT: Mystic Seaport

Many of the great whaling ships of the 1800’s were built in Bath, Maine, and the home port for the whalers was New Bedford, Massachusetts.   (No punches thrown yet.   That’s a good sign).

Many of the sailors on whaling ships grew up in the trade.   Most started as cabin boys, working their way toward being full-fledged sailors on board these sea-going factories.   The boys learned all of the skills necessary to be accomplished seamen.

A true skill all of the men had to learn was how to deal with the long periods of boredom between chores and the actual activities of whaling.   One way to cope with the boredom was to create fine pieces of scrimshaw pieces.

Essentially, scrimshaw is the art of carving pieces of ivory or bone.   For the sailors on board the whaling ships, whittling on an antler was virtually out of the question.   Their medium was the bones and teeth of whales.   (Sorry, there’ll be no segment on this topic on HGTV).

A few elements of this ancient craft are particularly amazing.   (That’s my amazement, not necessarily yours.) First of all, these artists were whalers... rough, hearty men who lived by their wits and skills to survive the perils of the sea.

A collection of Scrimshaw
BY & COPYRIGHT: Victor H. Billings

Second, they produced their art on board dimly-lit ships on a rolling ocean.   I have to take my hat off to them, these sailor artists.   They sat with a very sharp object in one hand, attempting to make fine cuts in a resistant bone while swaying to the beat of the ocean. It’s probably a little more than I could handle.   Ever!

These sailors took a bone in one hand and a blade in the other and carved everything from a smoking pipe (complete with fine figures carved into the bowl) to toys for the kids back home.   They etched out scenes of whaling adventures, historical scenes, beautiful women, kitchen tools, jewelry boxes, sewing and knitting needles, knife and sword hilts, toothpicks, and the list goes on and on.

Pieces of the actual ships were fashioned from the bones of the seas as well.   Not only were these bones fashioned to be functional pieces such as belaying pins, they were crafted artistically.   It is necessary to keep in mind these fellows worked with simple knife blades.   They didn’t have the electric and electronic computerized gadgetry of today to enhance this process, yet these sailors carved some truly tremendous and awe-inspiring pieces.

There are several places where the public can view individual items of scrimshaw in New England.   More often than not, what is required is a lot of curiosity and good luck if you happen to be prowling the coastal region of the great northeast.   If you don’t want to wear out that much shoe leather, you might amble down to the Whaling Museum in New Bedford.   It’s well worth your time to visit the Age of Sail, and to especially to appreciate the art from that era.

Share |
ONE is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.