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Museum catalogue: Scrimshaw Collection

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Scrimshaw Collection

Scrimshaw is the name given to the wide variety of objects made or decorated by people involved with the whaling industry, and also to the process of making them. There is a variety of spellings and the origin of the word is disputed. Scrimshaw was an occupational pastime, the earliest examples made of baleen (whalebone) from Arctic whaling in the 17th century, but it continued in an almost unbroken tradition through Antarctic whaling in the present century. However, most scrimshaw was done on sperm whaling voyages between ca. 1835 and 1870, as the long cruises required to produce a full cargo provided the most opportunities for pastimes such as scrimshaw. New Englanders dominated this industry so most scrimshaw has American associations and is in the U.S.A.

Scrimshaw materials were generally made up of the sea mammal products that whalers readily encountered. Various ivories from teeth and tusks (especially walrus), baleen (whalebone) and skeletal bone were used, perhaps with wood, horn, metal and even shells, to make a huge variety of useful and decorative things. However, most common were the teeth of sperm whales (whale ivory), decorated with pictorial scribework resembling engraving.

Only brief descriptions of all the scrimshaw in the SPRI collection are given in this catalogue, as more comprehensive analyses with discussions on the identification and dating of the pieces will be presented in a forthcoming book by Dr Janet West.

Further details on any item in the collection may be obtained on application to the Museum Curator. For details of public and research access please see the main Museum page of the website. For rights and images for publication, please contact the Picture Library.

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Data in this catalogue was last updated on Tuesday, 13th June 2023.