Scrimshaw on Nantucket

Sammy Dalati Books

Scrimshaw on Nantucket: The Collection of the Nantucket Historical Association by Stuart M. Frank (Nantucket Historical Association, 2019). 312 pp., color and b/w illus.

Nantucket, in cultural memory, will always be the island of whaling. But in spite of Herman Melville’s panegyrics, it was the center of the whaling world for only a brief historical moment, from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. The target of the hunt was whale oil, a product refined from blubber and burned in lamps or used to make smokeless candles. But other parts of the whale—at the time worthless, or nearly so—have become the most enduring artifacts of whaling days: ivory teeth, bone, and baleen carved, engraved, or otherwise fashioned—that is, scrimshawed—into various functional and decorative objects. Scrimshaw on Nantucket: The Collection of the Nantucket Historical Association, by preeminent scrimshaw scholar Stuart Frank, published this summer to mark the association’s 125th anniversary, surveys that art which, like sperm whaling, was first practiced in the Americas by Nantucketers.

Whaling scene engraved on a sperm whale tooth by W. L. Roderick, c. 1850. All objects illustrated are in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association, Massachusetts. Gift of Sara Jo Kobacker. All photographs by Jeffrey S. Allen.

The most recognizable and prized variety of the scrimshander’s art is sperm whale teeth sporting pictorial images, of which the NHA owns a number of notable examples. These include several “Susan’sTeeth” carefully engraved with scenes of hunting and processing whales by Frederick Myrick, one of the first Yankee scrimshaw artists, while a green hand on the whaler Susan. Also in the collection is a two-sided William L. Roderick tooth—the crème de la crème of English scrimshaw—depicting two stages of the hunt in unusually sophisticated perspective.

Watch hutch made from whale bone, wood, and whale ivory, 1830s. Gift of Edwin Obrecht.

Due to the scarcity of scrap wood aboard ship, sailors often had recourse to whale bone for building and repairing sailing tools, as well as for making knickknacks for friends and family back home. Using the ship’s lathe, carpenter’s tools, and what Melville called “dentistical-looking” implements, they made pulley blocks, fids for working and splicing rope, and even navigation instruments such as sextons and dividers, as well as bodkins, pie crimpers, teething rings, and clothespins. Among the most time-consuming objects a sailor could make were yarn swifts, contraptions used for winding skeins or coils of yarn into balls. The NHA owns a delicate and extremely rare triple-cage variety assembled from hundreds of thin ribs made of whale panbone—the jawbone—a piece that might have taken its industrious maker several years to complete.

Watch stand made with wood, whale ivory, tortoiseshell, and mother-of-pearl, c. 1825–1850. Gift of Frederick H. Gardner.

Not all scrimshandering was done at sea. Unlike whale ivory and bone, baleen, the keratinous plates that filter-feeding species such as right and bowhead whales use to strain krill and plankton from the water, had consistent commercial value, and as ship’s cargo was kept out of sailors’ hands. On shore, the mottled green and brown plates were cut and shaved into the springy busks that gave the era’s popular “whalebone” corsets their rigidity, or they were steamed and bent to make ditty- or bandboxes.

Triple-cage yarn swift made out of whale bone and ivory, 1800s. Bequest of Winthrop Williams.

Owing to its visual similarity to elephant ivory, and to the fact that it comes from an animal upon which a moratorium on hunting has been in place since 1986, the trade and transport of the white varieties of scrimshaw is strictly regulated by state and federal governments. With new restrictions on ivory likely to come into effect in Britain by the end of the year, and bills working their way through the legislatures of eleven US states, the water has recently gotten even hotter. Frank concludes his survey by requesting a special dispensation for scrimshaw—a “cultural resource . . . that provide[s] a unique window into the life and times . . . [and] mindset and interests of our American forebears.”