Curiously Carved: Pictorial Sources of Scrimshaw

Editorial Staff Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2013 |

Contrary to persistent stereotypes characterizing seamen in the Age of Sail as a barbaric rabble-unruly, illiterate ruffians devoted to the pursuit of disreputable vices-nineteenth-century Yankee whalemen were characteristically literate and, as a class, avid readers. Whaling voyages were matters of two, three, or even four years’ duration, including months at sea between landfalls; and unlike most mariners, who worked watch-on-watch around the clock, whalemen on the whaling grounds had most evenings off (one can’t hunt whales at night) and plenty of downtime between whales. Accordingly, books, magazines, and “fresh” newspapers-often many months old-were highly prized and widely circulated on shipboard.

  • Fig. 3.  Oval baleen ditty box, American, c. 1838-1860.  Height 5 ⅝, width 4 ¾, depth 2 ¾ inches.


  • Fig. 1. Engraved masthead of Gleason’s Weekly Line-of-Battle Ship, January 1, 1859. The objects illustrated are in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Massachusetts.  Gift of the author.

  • Fig. 2. Engraved whale teeth with figures of Liberty and Justice, American, mid-nineteenth century. Height 4 ½ inches. Gift of Mrs. Andrew Snow Jr.


  • Fig. 5. Engraved whale tooth with image of a United States frigate, American, nineteenth century. Height 5 ⅝ inches. Kendall Collection.


  • Fig. 6. Engraved whale tooth with a U.S. frigate by George Heely, ship’s carpenter on the bark Sea Flower of New Bedford, 1856-1857. Height 6 ⅞ inches. Kendall Collection.

  • Fig. 7. Engraved whale tooth with an adaptation of the frigate design. Length 7 ¾ inches. Kendall Collection.  

  • Fig. 8. Conrad and Medora by Joseph Goodyear (1797-1839) after a painting by Francis Philip Stephanoff (1788-1860). Engraving, 8 ½ by 5 ¾ inches. Gift of Jack H. T. Chang.


  • Fig. 9.  Engraved whale tooth with “The Corsair” by William Aratus Gilpin (b. 1805), formerly known as the Ceres A Artist (or Ceres A Artisan; active c. 1830s-1840s). Height 6 ⅝ inches.  Estate of Captain Michael Rodgers, gift of his widow, Margaret K. Rodgers.

  • Fig. 10.  Engraved whale tooth with John Philip Kemble (1757-1823) in the role of Rolla by the so-called Eagle Portraitist, American, c. 1830s-1840s. Height 7 ⅜ inches. Kendall Collection. 


  • Fig. 11. Engraved whale tooth with a sailor dancing the hornpipe, American, c. 1840s-1850s. Height 6 inches. Kendall Collection.

  • Fig. 12. Shot flask made from a sperm whale tooth hollowed out, carved, polished, and engraved, American, c. 1850s.  Height 5 ½ inches.  Kendall Collection.




  • Fig. 13. Engraved whale tooth with a figure of a Black Seminole, American, c. 1830-1850. Height 5 ½  inches. Gift of John D. Folley Jr.


  • Fig. 14. Engraved whale tooth with a figure of a Black Seminole and a likeness of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), American, 1840s-1850s. Height 9 inches. Kendall Collection.

  • Fig. 15. Engraved whale tooth with The First Step, American, c. 1850s. Height 5 ½ inches.

  • Fig. 16. Engraved whale tooth with a variation of The First Step, American, c. 1850s. Height 4 ¼ inches. Kendall Collection.


  • Fig. 19. The Sisters by Thomas B. Welch (1814-1874) and Adam B. Walter (1820-1875) after a painting by the Scottish artist John Michael Wright (1617-1694), used as an illustration for a poem entitled “The Sisters” by Robert Morris, in Graham’s Magazine, March 1843. Chang gift.



  • Fig. 20. Panbone plaque by Finney, c. 1860. Height 39 ¼, width 13 ½ inches. Kendall Collection.


  • Fig. 21. Pair of walrus tusks engraved by Finney, 1860-1879. Each inscribed “Engraved/by/N.S. Finney/S.F./Cal.” on the back. Height (of each)approximately 16 ½ inches. Kendall Collection.


  • Fig. 22.  Engraved whale tooth with Upsetting a Whaleboat by Lothar R. Candels (1925-), 1979. Though radically reduced in size from the original, the image is based on a painting by Percy Elton Cowan (1883-1923) in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Candels is a retired pediatrician living in Connecticut. Gift of the artist in honor of Mary Malloy and Stuart Frank.

  • Fig. 4. Detail of an engraved whale tooth with a figure of George Washington, American, c. 1850. Overall height 5 inches. Kendall Collection.

Abundant leisure accounts for the florescence of journal-keeping, drawing, creative writing, and scrimshaw-making on whaleships in substantially higher measure than in other maritime trades. Much whalemen’s pictorial work, of course, concerns ships, whaling scenes, and seafaring, drawn from firsthand experience and exuding a level of technical knowhow of which only a participant would be capable. Many such scenes are highly original. But the whalemen artists were also products of, and participants in, general culture, and a large proportion of their pictorial scrimshaw is derived from mainstream iconography-traced directly, copied loosely, or adapted freely from images published in the popular press.

Not surprisingly, patriotic images and American naval prowess were tenacious themes on sperm whale teeth, baleen boxes, and panbone plaques. Richard C. Malley identified Abel Bowen’s Naval Monument (1816) as a significant source of War of 1812 naval engagements on scrimshaw. Subsequent soundings revealed that Horace Kimball’s highly derivative American Naval Battles (1831) was nearly as influential, and that far from making only straightforward copies of published images, whalemen often modified them to suit their own purposes. The same can be said of patriotic portraiture and genre scenes.

The earliest objects made by whalemen from whale byproducts, thus the earliest objects that can justifiably be called whalemen’s scrimshaw, are two oval boxes with baleen sides bent around wooden tops and bottoms attributed to an anonymous Rotterdam whaling master in 1631 (one in the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the other in the Zuiderzeemuseum, Netherlands). They are structural prototypes of the familiar Shaker bentwood boxes and of baleen ditty boxes by American whalemen, such as the one shown here in Figure 3. Lacking a lid, it features an orthodox copy of Constitution’s Escape from the British Squadron from Bowen’s Naval Monument.

Not surprisingly, the USS Constitution figures in myriad whalemen’s renderings, including those in Figures 5-7, all inspired by Massachusetts Never Surrenders! an engraving that appeared in an unidentified periodical of the 1830s and in a blank ledger volume distributed by Massachusetts stationer and publisher John P. Jewett and later used by a whaleman to record his voyage. The smallest and sketchiest version (Fig. 5) is closest to the original, preserving the patriotic sense of a Yankee frigate, with composite masts and two gundecks. The one in Figure 6, scrimshawed by whaleman George Heely, ship’s carpenter aboard the bark Sea Flower of New Bedford, 1856-1857, retains most features of the original vessel but converts the gundecks into a row of false gunports, suggesting a merchantman or a whaler lacking davits. A third version (Fig. 7) transforms the image into a whaling scene in landscape format. The ship retains composite masts braced with iron hoops (standard on warships, rare on whaleships) but changes the two rows of gunports into one course of false gunports, hoists a house flag at the mainmast, and adds three boats lowered in pursuit of whales, with another ship visible hulldown in the distance.

Patriotic figures were also popular, and Liberty and Justice are among the many images faithfully copied onto whale teeth from published prototypes. The anonymous scrimshander of the tooth in Figure 2 took his design from the engraved masthead (Fig. 1) of the short-lived newspaper Gleason’s Weekly Line-of-Battle Ship, published by Frederick Gleason (1816-1896), former proprietor of Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion.

The figure of George Washington in Figure 4 is ultimately based on John Trumbull’s painting George Washington before the Battle of Trenton of about 1793, which was engraved about 1845 by William Warner Jr. (1813-1848). The anonymous scrimshaw artist’s immediate source is unknown, but Trumbull and Warner show Washington attended by a white officer in uniform, and either the whaleman or some intermediary changed the attendant into an African-American servant.

In addition to whalemen having time and opportunity for books and art, mariners as a class were habitual theatergoers in port and frequently produced theatricals on shipboard. Literary and theatrical subjects abound on scrimshaw, while music-related pictures were often modeled after or related to sheet music covers.

Among literary subjects is the likeness of the British tragedian John Philip Kemble in the role of Rolla by the so-called Eagle Portraitist (Fig. 10). Loosely adapted from an engraving by Samuel William Reynolds (1773-1835) after a painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the image portrays Kemble in the 1799 London debut production of the play Pizarro by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. He is rescuing an Inca child and striking a famous “attitude” while reciting the famous line, “Then was this sword Heaven’s gift, not thine. / Who takes one step to follow me dies on the spot!”

An episode in the tragic ballet Le Corsaire, based on Lord Byron’s poem “The Corsair” (1814), first performed in 1837 at the King’s Theatre in London, is the subject of the scrimshaw in Figure 9. It is the work of the so-called Ceres A Artist (or Artisan), who has recently been identified as William Aratus Gilpin, a Wilmington, Delaware, seaman aboard the whaleships Ceres of Wilmington (1834-1837) and Jason of New London, Connecticut (1841-1842). Depicting a pirate and his lady-love, the rendering is adapted from the British print Conrad and Medora (Fig. 8) and the American sheet music “The Corsair’s Farewell.”

Also drawn from the world of dance, Figure 11 shows a sailor dancing the hornpipe. Adapted from a wood engraving in Hawser Martingale’s Tales of the Ocean and Essays for the Forecastle (New York, 1840), he sports the side whiskers, flat brimmed hat with ribbon, neckerchief, striped blouse, short jacket, bellbottom trousers with button flap, and low (patent leather) slippers that are quintessential characteristics of the Anglo-American handsome sailor stereotype.

Images of African Americans and Native Americans appear only occasionally on scrimshaw. Among the most compelling is a figure of a Black Seminole extracted from an engraving first published in 1819 and copied by two different whalemen at different times (Figs. 13, 14). Black Seminoles were former slaves of African ancestry who escaped from rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia, built settlements in remote parts of Florida, and fought a series of battles to preserve their freedom. The source illustration by Abel Bowen (1790-1850) depicts the rescue of a captured Georgia militiaman by Milly Francis, “the Creek Pocahontas,” in 1818. It first appeared in the “History of the Indian Wars” chapter in the 1819 edition of Henry Trumbull’s History of the Discovery of America and was re-engraved by Nathaniel Dearborn for the 1846 edition of Trumbull’s History of the Indian Wars.

The Black Seminole image appears on the oversize tooth in Figure 14 together with a likeness of the colonial American preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), after an engraving by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) of a painting of 1720 by Joseph Badger (1708-1765) in the Yale University Art Gallery. It appeared in various degraded and adulterated copies, from any of which the anonymous scrimshaw may derive. A compelling image of African Americans is found on a unique shot flask fashioned from a sperm whale tooth (Fig. 12). The shuffle-dancing African-American man and an African American woman are adapted from an engraving by Luigi Delnoce (active 1840s-1880s) that appeared on the cover of sheet music entitled “The Gems of the Christy’s,” published by William Van Derbeek in New York in 1848.

Norman Flayderman introduced the notion of fashion plates in Godey’s Lady’s Book and “other” popular magazines as sources for scrimshaw. It turns out that Gleason’s Pictorial, Graham’s Magazine, and especially Harper’s Monthly were even more prevalent sources of whalemen’s pictures- not only ladies’ fashions but juvenile vignettes (which were actually published as fashions for kids) and fine-arts prints. For example, the piece in Figure 15 shows a marble sculpture by Pietro Magni (1817-1877) displayed at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851. The original source was a lithograph, one of 160 plates illustrating objects from the exhibition included in Matthew Digby Wyatt’s The Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century (London, 1851-1853). But the direct source was probably the re-engraving that appeared in Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion of October 22, 1853, in conjunction with an article praising the sculpture when it was exhibited at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York in 1853.

Essentially the same image, ultimately based on the same source, appears in Figure 16; however, changes to the facial features and garments, and the addition of a checkerboard floor replacing the formal display platform, transform it from a picture of a stone sculpture into a picture of a woman and child, perhaps the anonymous scrimshaw artist’s actual family.

From the standpoint of sheer technique, Nathaniel Sylvester Finney has justifiably been called one of the greatest scrimshaw artists of all time. He was certainly the most accomplished copyist. Originally from Plymouth, Massachusetts, and a career whaleman from early youth, he settled in SanFrancisco around 1860 and, uniquely in the nineteenth century, made a living executing commissions as a scrimshaw artist-a master of trompe l’oeil photographic effects on marine ivory and bone. The known scrimshaw from his whaling days is on sperm whale teeth, including the ones in Figures 17 and 18, faithfully copied, respectively, from a steel engraving by Henry Cooke, and from the illustration in Figure 19.

Finney executed two masterpieces on the large jaw pans of sperm whales early in his commercial art period. The one shown here (Fig. 20) features an ensemble of mostly unrelated patriotic pictures, all transfer copies from a variety of sources. The dominant image is a full-length figure of American bare-knuckles boxing champion John C. Heenan (1835-1873), “The Benicia Boy,” from the April 14, 1860 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.12 At the top is a sentimental vignette of mother and child from a fashion plate in the June 1858 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Below this are two War of 1812 naval victories: one, labeled “Constitution & Guerriere,” is after The Constitution in Close Action with the Guerriere, engraved by Abel Bowen for his Naval Monument after a painting (U.S. Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland) by Michele Felice Corné (1752-1845). The other, labeled “Escape of the Constitution from a British Squadron” an event that took place in July 1812, is from Horace Kimball’s American Naval Battles (Boston, 1831). However, Kimball’s image is actually copied after an entirely different episode in Bowen’s Naval Monument: “The President Engaging the Endymion while being pursued by the British Squadron.”14 The glorious American patriotic spread eagle, one of Finney’s best, is likely copied from an official document, as yet unidentified.

Most of Finney’s commissions were executed on walrus tusks, distinguished by fine line engraving and subtle stippling in miraculously vivid portraits based on magazine illustrations and studio photographs. The ones in Figure 21 are typical, incorporating portraits, presumably of a husband, wife, and their two children, based on studio photographs; subtleties of texture and shading; floral and musical vignettes; circumferential acorn-and-oakleaf border at the base; and Finney’s signature on the back.

Copyist traditions still survive among modern “revival” scrimshaw artists, whose merits, like those of their precursors, are judged by the quality of workmanship and the ingenuity of how an image is placed in the comparatively restricted space of a whale tooth. Nowadays most of the best practitioners have had formal training, but they still tend toward the vernacular subjects that motivated their self-trained sailor-artist predecessors more than a century and a half ago (see Fig. 22).