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Cape Cod Scrimshaw Art

The article most commonly made by whalemen when they “scrimshawed” was the decorated sperm whale tooth. Large ivory teeth, sometimes weighing over five pounds and over nine inches long were cut from the jaw of the sperm whale.

Before the tooth could be decorated, it had to be smoothed and polished as much as elbow grease could make it. This polishing was long and arduous, for the ivory was hard, and polished slowly. The whaleman would first scrape down the tooth with a handmade tool, fashioned from a broken harpoon or an old file. This scraping took off the deep grooves, and then the sailor polished the ivory with his substitute for sandpaper, dried sharkskin. The lustrous high polish was obtained by more hours of rubbing the tooth with the palm of his hand, which he first covered with wood ashes. When these three steps had been completed, the tooth was completed, or scrimshawed, and ready for decoration.

An artistically inclined sailor would draw a picture on the broad side of the tooth with his pencil, then with a sail needle, go over the lines, scratching the design into the ivory. The cut-out would then be filled in with paint pigment or dry india ink mixed with whale oil. These were rubbed into the ivory with the fingers, then washing off the surplus around the design or picture. Often times, the pictures were varicolored and exceptionally beautiful. If the sailor could not draw “free-hand,” he would select a magazine picture and, pasting in on the tooth, would use a sail needle to prick out the design on the ivory. The picture was then removed, the dots were connected, and the design was ready to be cut into the ivory.

The pictures and designs used on the “scrimshawed” articles were many and varied. Home medicine and theology were close scenes and pictures of beautiful women were used by those who longed for home and familiar faces. From 1812 to 1816, the war years, the pictures were patriotic—flags, eagles, frigates, cannons and the like. After the war, the men turned to religious pictures, some taken from Biblical characters and stories. Then came the famous Godey’s Lady Book magazine, with its lovely women, and these appeared on the scrimshawed articles.

See also: Nantucket Scrimshaw picture

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Cape Cod
Posted by Cape Cod - (website) on 03/03/06
Categories: History
Keywords: scrimshaw, whaling, history, art



Posted by kathryn robito from cape coral, fl on 04/21/09 at 03:43 PM | #

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