THE WORD SCRIMSHAW
The word Scrimshaw refers to the art form, one who does Scrimshaw is referred to as a Scrimshander.
Where the word “Scrimshaw” actually came from, I don’t believe anyone really knows but I think the general consensus is, it was probably derived from a Dutch or English nautical slang expression meaning “to waste time.” In other words, anything a seaman made in his off duty hours, when there was nothing else of importance to do on the ship was considered and called “Scrimshaw” maybe because the ship’s Captain thought it was foolishness to sit and scratch pictures into a whale’s tooth and to do so was a waste of ones time. Many whaling voyages could last 3, 4, 5 years or more and several weeks or even months would pass between Whale sightings. Without something to occupy their time the seamen may well have gone stir crazy in the cramped quarters and poor living conditions aboard these ships.
Today, when people hear the word Scrimshaw, more often than not they think of the images cut or scratched into ivory or other materials to produce a picture, however, there were a number of other things that were produced aboard whaling ships that were also considered Scrimshaw. There were the hinges, latches and other whale bone and ivory fittings that made the “Nantucket Basket” famous. Seamen would also use the whale’s teeth and bones to carve into umbrella and cane handles, pie crimpers, animal figures, corset busks, various tools and tool handles, etc. While the word Scrimshaw was used to describe items made with whale bone and the ivory teeth, not all of the sailors were artistic enough to carve or do the engraving work but they might be good at working with wood so they made small wooden boxes referred to as “Ditty Boxes” which were also considered Scrimshaw. The box may have ivory inlays and maybe the sailor would trade some of his work for a piece of Scrimshaw to fit into the top of the box. A wide variety of other useful or decorative items were also considered Scrimshaw, however, it was and still is the ivory whale’s teeth with pictures engraved on them that are the most sought after form of Scrimshaw.
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HOW SCRIMSHAW ENGRAVINGS WERE DONE
The ivory teeth from the Sperm Whale were the most popular for Scrimshaw engravings because they were plentiful and small enough to be stowed away in the sailor’s sea chest and since they had no commercial value, the ships Captain would hand them out at no cost to the sailors that wanted them.
In there natural form the ivory whale’s teeth had ridges and other imperfections that had to be removed before the engraving work could be done, the sailors removed the imperfections by first scraping them with a knife, then they would smooth the surface to be Scrimshawed with sharkskin
or pumice, the last step was to polish them to a high gloss
finish with a cloth.
On the whaling ships the Scrimshaw engravings were done with a pocket knife or if the sailor/whaler was lucky he would get a discarded needle from the ships sail maker. With the knife or needle the sailor would cut and/or scratch a picture into the polished surface. Then Periodically during the engraving process the sailor would rub a pigment into the cuts and scratches, since ink wasn’t readily available they would get soot from the chimney of the ships cooking stove, or they would grind up gun powder with a little whale oil, it was the pigment rubbed into the cuts and scratches that made the picture come to life. A broad range of subjects were depicted on the whale teeth but the most common were portraits of the ship they were sailing on and maybe the ship’s captain, there were also portraits of wives or sweethearts back home, all kinds of sea creatures, mermaids and more.
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MOBY DICK AND SCRIMSHAW
Herman Melville was the author of “Moby Dick,” a classic novel about a ships Captain and the whaling ship Pequod that went in pursuit of a great white Whale. Melville himself actually set sail on a whaling ship, the Acushnet, which sailed out of New Bedford harbor Massachusetts in the month of January 1841 bound for the Pacific Ocean and the Sperm Whale fishery. During his 18 month long voyage he heard many tales of Whale hunts and those of a malicious Great White Whale that cruised the waters of the South Pacific. Melville heard the true stories about the whaling ship, the Essex that had sailed out of Nantucket in 1819 and was rammed and sank by a furious Sperm Whale on Nov. 20th 1819. Of the 20 crew members that survived the attack and struggled to exist in 3 open life boats, only 8 survived. Most of the novel “Moby Dick” can be considered factual based on Melville’s own experience aboard a whaling ship along with the stories he heard, written accounts of the sinking of the Essex, as well as first hand accounts of the tragedy from the surviving first mate of the Essex.
In the book “Moby Dick” Melville actually mentions Scrimshaw as; “Lively sketches of Whales and Whaling scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale teeth or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale bone and other Scrimshander articles.”
A little known fact is, the name of the famous coffee company founded in 1970, the name “Starbucks,” was actually taken from the book Moby Dick as the Captain’s first mate was named “Starbuck.”
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THE ORIGAN OF SCRIMSHAW
Although it is generally accepted that the modern form of Scrimshaw is an original American art form that dates back over 200 years, there are accounts of Native American Eskimos/Inuit’s practicing a precursor to the style of Scrimshaw the whalers/sailors were doing as early as 100 to 200 AD. In fact there are accounts of Eskimo artifacts being excavated from traditional hunting camp sites dating back as many as 6,000 years ago. Eskimos used Whale and Walrus ivory and bone for many of their tools and utensils, such as, harpoon fore shafts, fishing net weights, needles, awls, sled runners, ice probes and even bone armor. Centuries of being buried have given many of these artifacts a rich golden brown patina on the outside but with a little work to remove the outer layers reveals an awesome creamy colored working window suitable for Scrimshaw of the finest detail. While it has been said the Eskimos passed this art form on to the New England sailors and whalers, it was the sailors and whalers who refined the art form and led the way to the modern more refined Scrimshaw we see and enjoy today.
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FROM THE SEA INLAND
From the sea, sailors and whalers brought us Scrimshaw on Whale’s teeth with images depicting nautical scenes and other things relating to their long voyages as well as memories and images of loved ones back home. Even before the decline of the whaling industry, the art of Scrimshaw started moving inland. Long before the invention and introduction of the modern cartridge firearms, muzzle loading, black powder firearms were used and everyone that carried a rifle or hand gun also carried a powder horn fashioned from a cow’s horn which they used to carry the black powder needed to load and fire their gun. From the French and Indian wars to the Revolutionary War, then on through the Civil war all of the soldiers carried black powder firearms and a powder horn. Like the whalers and their Whale’s teeth, when the soldiers found themselves sitting idle in an encampment between battles they would smooth and polish their powder horns and engrave images into them, however, the scenes they engraved were not of ships and other whaling scenes, they were often battle scenes and maps showing where battles had been fought. There is one powder horn from the war of 1812 that was engraved with a folksy landscape, a 2-story home with 2 chimneys, trees, a rooster and a fenced yard, as well as a 3-masted schooner and other fancy embellishments. With the home and the ship, this certainly had to be the horn of an ex-whaler/sailor that decided it was better to fight in a war rather than to go out to sea on another 3 to 5 year voyage hunting Whales. I once heard a story about how a seafaring man could leave the hard life of whale hunting behind, settle down with a wife and raise a family, it went something like this;
"If you want to get away from the sea and not be tempted to go out on another 3 to 5 year voyage, you collect your pay for the last 5 year voyage, $2 a month, throw an anchor up over your shoulder and you walk inland until someone asks “what’s that” and that’s where you drop the anchor and build yourself a chicken farm."
As our Great Country grew further westward, Mountain Men of the “Fur Trade Era” and pioneers carried with them black powder firearms and powder horns. Mountain men also engraved their powder horns but more often than not they engraved maps on their horns showing the route to an easily traveled mountain pass, or directions to the best trapping spots, or maybe the location of friendly Indian villages where he could visit, rest a spell and maybe even spend the winter. In addition to the maps engraved in the horns, many of the powder horns carried by the Soldiers as well as the horns of the Mountain Men had very intricate embellishments on them, today this type of horn is referred to as a “Map Horn.”
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DECLINE and REBIRTH of SCRIMSHAW
Towards the end of the 1800’s natural gas and other petroleum based products were discovered and the need for whale oil declined rapidly. Although not totally gone, those left in the whaling industry made significant changes, becoming more efficient, building larger, faster, steam powered ships with better processing equipment and greater storage capacities. Harpoons fired from shipboard cannons were more accurate at much greater distances than those thrown by hand from small rowboats. With significantly smaller whaling fleets and other changes which allowed the ships to operate more efficiently with smaller crews that meant there were fewer whalers/sailors to do Scrimshaw work. By that time the whale’s teeth and bones which in earlier years were tossed aside, now became part of the seas bounty the whaling ships were after because they now had a commercial value. Also, around the late 1860s and early 1870s the first truly successful center-fire cartridges and rifles were introduced which meant it was no longer necessary to carry a powder horn. These two events occurring almost simultaneously resulted in Scrimshaw nearly becoming a lost art.
It wasn’t until the 1960s, roughly a hundred years later that the popularity of Scrimshaw began to grow and the renewed interest in Scrimshaw was credited to President John F. Kennedy who was an avid collector of Scrimshaw. Through the rebirth of Scrimshaw in the 1960s, most of the collector’s interest was directed almost entirely to the illustrated teeth of the mighty Sperm Whale, however, raw whales teeth for new Scrimshaw works by the increasing number of Scrimshanders were in limited supply and becoming more expensive by the day. To make the matters worse for the Scrimshaw market, sperm whales, along with other whales and marine mammals, were put on the “Endangered Species List” in 1970 making whale’s teeth even harder to find and purchase. Seamen of the past taught us that the teeth of the sperm whales were ivory and very nice to work on; therefore other types of ivory should work equally as well. Long before the sperm whales were given the protected status, Scrimshanders were using ivory from the Majestic African Elephant, in many ways this gave the artist more freedom for size, shape and thickness, this let the artist create smaller pieces of Scrimshaw art for pendants and smaller pieces yet for matching earrings as well as other types of jewelry and display pieces. In 1989 the growing Scrimshaw trade suffered another blow when the African Elephant was given the “Protected Status” and further imports and exports of elephant ivory into and out of the United States became illegal, as it did in most other countries in the world.
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THE LAST GENERATION OF SCRIMSHANDERS
With the 1970 restrictions on whale’s teeth, then the 1989 restrictions on the import and export of elephant ivory, collectors and Scrimshanders alike were wondering if the art of Scrimshaw would finally meet its demise? Are the Scrimshanders of today the last generation of Scrimshaw artists, will future generations view Scrimshaw as a lost art of America’s past? Fortunately for the time being there are a variety of other types of ivory that Scrimshanders have found to be very suitable for their work. Probably the most sought after and readily available are the fossilized ivories from the Wooly Mammoth and Mastodon, these great beasts are prehistoric cousins of today’s elephants; they have been extinct for over 10,000 years so using ivory from them certainly doesn’t pose a threat to their survival. After the restrictions on elephant ivory were put in place, the search for more Mammoth and Mastodon ivory got underway. Since these animals lived in the colder climates along the edge of the glaciers it was there where the search started. In Siberia it is said that over 50 tons of mammoth ivory is found every year and more remains to be found. Also, as I mentioned earlier, there are the fossilized Eskimo artifacts from the odd looking walrus, as well as teeth and tusks from these animals that died natural deaths hundreds of years ago. The fossilized remains are found during excavating expeditions to the beaches where they have mated and raised their young for thousands of years. In addition, other materials used for Scrimshaw that do not pose a threat to wildlife are; Micarta, a man made material typically used for knife handles, naturally shed deer and elk antlers, ivory piano keys from old pianos, Corian counter top material, another man made material and more. There is even a nut from South America, the Tagua nut, that is considered a vegetable ivory, when prepared and polished it does have a nice ivory color, however, the size of the project is somewhat limited to its natural size and shape which is about the size of a golf ball but more oval.
“No more ivory.” I have heard stories and read articles that suggest the current Scrimshanders are the last generation that will be able to carry on the art, at least on any kind of ivory. Assuming elephant ivory will never be deregulated, however, I do believe one day it will be, this generation of Scrimshanders may indeed exhaust the supply of fossil ivories, and after all, it is not a renewable resource. Even if we do use up all of the fossil ivories, I doubt that Scrimshaw as an art form will ever die away, Scrimshanders are a persistent breed, they will always find something to scratch a picture into and with the advancements in technology there will surely be new materials developed in the not to distant future that Scrimshanders will find suitable and worthwhile to invest hours and hours of labor to produce a finished piece of art that is equally as beautiful as one done on ivory.
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“I thought ivory was illegal” NOT!!!
Every Scrimshander that is using ivory these days hears this question or statement time and time again but the truth is, African elephant ivory is absolutely legal to buy, sell and ship anywhere within the United States with no permits or registration requirements. The current laws only ban the import and export of elephant ivory into and out of the country. The ivory that was already here when the restrictions were put in place is referred to as “Pre Ban Ivory” and should be used for an awesome piece of Scrimshaw art rather than laying in some basement or other storage facility collecting dust. Also, if not cared for and stored properly the ivory could dry out and develop severe cracks making it less suitable for Scrimshaw engravings, or anything else for that matter.
In 1989 when the ban on import and export of elephant ivory was put in place, it was estimated that there was 3 million tons of ivory already within the United States, let me put that number in perspective for you. 3 million tons is, 6 billion (that’s BILLION with a B) pounds, or 96 BILLION ounces. Assuming that half of the ivory in the country are full tusks or for other reasons not available for Scrimshanders to buy and use, that leaves 48 Billion ounces on the market. Based on one of my typical projects and I do mostly jewelry, the average amount of ivory used in a piece is 2 ounces, that gives you a piece roughly the size of a silver dollar. The 2010 census puts the population of the United States at 308,745,538 if you divide that number into the 48 Billion ounces, that means every man, woman and child in the United States could have 155 pieces of ivory jewelry, that converts to 19.375 pounds of ivory per person. Once the supply of fossil ivories dries up, whether it is in this generation or the next, one day it will be gone, Scrimshanders should have an ample supply of elephant ivory to work on; we just have to de-program the public and convince them that ivory is not illegal to buy and own and a highly detailed piece of Scrimshaw on elephant ivory may very well become a treasured family heirloom to be passed down from generation to generation.
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FAKE SCRIMSHAW - RIGHT OR WRONG
Now would be a good time to ask "WHAT ARE YOUR FEELINGS ABOUT SCRIMSHAW REPRODUCTIONS or what some people refer to as FAKESHAW? I think it goes without saying that most collectors seek out "one of a kind" original pieces of Scrimshaw done on some type of real ivory and that makes good sense, especially if you're collecting Scrimshaw as an investment. Although, having said that, I've sold a number of reproductions to long time collectors that "JUST LIKED MY WORK." Now I'm not going to try to pull the wool over any ones eyes, I started doing reproductions to make a little more money. I remember telling my wife, "I have to try to make my Scrimshaw work, work for me" and that was my motivation for seeking out a method of doing just that. I will tell you I'm not getting rich doing reproductions but it does help keep the wolves away from the door. Before even starting my quest to find a method that would work, I asked a few friends that were somewhat collectors what they thought about "reproductions" and I was actually surprised that they thought reproductions had a place in the Scrimshaw marketplace. On the other hand, there are the purists that think anything other than one of a kind custom pieces done on ivory are a disgrace and a slap in the face to the art form and anyone involved in making reproductions should be ran out of town on a rail.
Justified or not, here's the way I look at it. When I was doing only original engravings, it was real tough to make a living at it, now I'll admit I'm not the fastest kid on the block but I'm not the slowest either and if I hadn't found a way to make quality reproductions I probably wouldn't be in the Scrimshaw business today. Also, when we go to the "Living History Events" where we sell our art there were so many people and many of them friends, who would say, "Oh I wish I could afford a piece of your work," my comeback was usually, "don't feel bad, I can't afford one either." Now, with our reproductions priced the way they are, almost anyone can afford a piece and you know what, they don't care what the material is, they want the work and they will treasure their piece of Hops' work just as much as the collector that waits a year and spends $1,000 for it. Now, for a few people that we see admiring our work for any length of time and we're pretty sure they really can't afford a piece, we can make the piece they are admiring a gift to them, which we do very often, after all, it's not all about making money.
Another way to look at reproductions is, for every one piece a Scrimshander that will only do "one of a kind original engravings" sells, we will sell 50 to 100 pieces thus educating that many more people about what Scrimshaw is, who in turn will take their reproduction and show it off to who knows how many more people, educating them as well. Also, unlike the collector or just the buyer who only has the one original piece they spent hundreds of dollars on and only wears it on special occasions, our customers who only spent $15 to $30 wears their Scrimshaw everywhere they go without fear of damaging it or worse, loosing it. Every year we hear stories of customers coming back to purchase another piece saying how many times they had been stopped in a mall or grocery store by perfect strangers admiring their Scrimshaw and asking "where did you get that, what is it, is the picture painted on there?" another person educated on what Scrimshaw is.
Don't get me wrong, every year we do a few custom pieces and will continue to take on custom work, however, if educating the public on "What Scrimshaw is," we do a much better job with our line of reproductions than we do with our custom pieces.
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MATERIALS WE USE FOR OUR REPRODUCTIONS
We use a variety of materials for the actual engraving our reproductions are created from, they include, fossilized Mammoth, Mastodon and Walrus ivory, if the piece doesn't need to be very thick such as for money clip inserts and some earrings we use elephant ivory from old piano keys. As for man made materials, we have used some Micarta but prefer Corian counter top material. Some of the original engravings we are currently making reproductions from were done on "Pre Ban" African Elephant ivory, we do still have a little of it left but when it's gone we will not be purchasing any more, unless of course the ban is lifted. Regardless of the material the original engraving is done on, all of our reproductions are cast with a polymer resin and the polymer we use is formulated specifically for us to look and act like real ivory, with age our reproductions will take on a rich golden patina making them even more beautiful than when you first purchased the piece.
Some other teeth and tusks Scrimshanders like to scratch on are; Hippo teeth, Wart Hog and Wild Boar tusks. As far as I know these animals are not endangered nor will they be in the foreseeable future. If you are considering becoming a collector or trying your hand at Scrimshaw and you’re not sure about the laws, I suggest you check with your state and federal “Fish & Wildlife Services to see what the current laws are governing the particular material you’re going to use or buy.
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While you're here, please take a minute to sign our guest book and tell us what you think of our web site. If you have a specific animal or design you would like us to add to our collection of designs let us know and we'll add it to our list.
Walk in peace,
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We at Hops’ Scrimshaw fully support any effort that is “effective” in saving wildlife that is “truly endangered,” unfortunately, many of the laws that are written to protect our wildlife are politically motivated and only address half of the problems, if there were indeed problems to begin with, hence, any conservation effort is only half as effective as it could be and often times create new and bigger problems.