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Scrimshaw is a form of folk art practiced by whalemen in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Some scrimshaw was also produced by those on shore who had access to whale products. Makers of scrimshaw were called scrimshanders. They engraved images on ivory, whalebone, whale teeth, wood and shells, and carved items of bone and exotic woods. Typical works include decorated whale teeth and practical items such as napkin rings, canes, knitting needles, pie crimpers or jagging wheels (for cutting pastry), bodkins (for embroidery), swifts (yarn winders) and tools of all sorts for shipboard use.
Whaling voyages averaged nearly four years. To relieve the boredom of long periods of time between whale sightings, whalemen often played cards, checkers, and wrote in personal journals. Those with an artistic bent did woodcarving, sketching, knotwork, and made scrimshaw.
The taking of a whale provided scrimshanders with plenty of material. Sperm whales provided teeth; all whales provided bone; bowhead and right whales provided baleen, a black, flexible material found in the mouths of these whales. Walrus tusks were also decorated by whalers who ventured into Northern waters.
The quality of scrimshaw ranges from crude scratchings on teeth or bone to exquisite examples of fine craftsmanship with the majority falling somewhere in between. The Paul C. Nicholson Whaling Collection in the Providence Public Library has a number of both artistic pieces of scrimshaw and more mundane but finely crafted functional pieces. The Library's image database contains a sampling of the finest pieces of scrimshaw in the Nicholson Collection.
We extend our appreciation to Judith Navas Lund, whaling historian, who expertly cleaned, organized and cataloged the Library's scrimshaw collection. Her valuable help on these and other areas of the collection is greatly appreciated.
Scrimshaw Collection (image gallery)
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