Scrimshaw is the art of engraving images on ivory—whale teeth and bone and walrus tusks—a folk art practiced by men aboard whaleships during the nineteenth century. During long voyages, whalers would often turn to scrimshanding as a way to pass time and as an outlet for their creative energies. Sailors made scrimshaw in an amazing variety, including decorative objects, utilitarian devices, and jewelry. It is one of the earliest recognized American crafts and remains one of the most highly desired forms of folk art for collectors of Americana.
The scrimshaw in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association is the result of over a century and a half of passionate collecting, and is considered one of the most important collections in the world. Highlights of the collection include some of the earliest and rarest sperm whale teeth, engraved by the most famous of all scrimshaw artists, Nantucketers Frederick Myrick and Edward Burdett; outstanding examples of teeth by the anonymous scrimshaw hands known as the Ceres Artisan, the Banknote Engraver, the Naval Battle Captain; and dozens of the finest-quality teeth, many with direct Nantucket provenances. In addition to the superb collection of teeth, every aspect of the scrimshander’s art is represented in the collection, including dazzling specimens of swifts, busks, canes, jagging wheels, coconut-shell dippers, ditty boxes, furniture, tools, Arctic ivory, and plaques.
Banner photography by Warren Jagger