NEW BEDFORD — Scrimshank. Scrimshander. Scrimshant. Scrimshone. They’re all alternative words for scrimshaw, and they all — including scrimshaw — derive from seafaring slang.
Herman Melville wrote of “skrimshander” in “Moby-Dick,” and of the “little boxes of dentistical-looking implements” used to make it.
So it goes by colorful terms. But what is scrimshaw?
You can get a densely congested but unparalleled insight into this most particular of art forms at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, one of the region’s most engaging museums.
Its new, permanent display, “Scrimshaw: Shipboard Art of the Whalers,” opened on May 13, and it features several hundred items selected from what’s considered the world’s largest and finest scrimshaw collection.
Many of the objects have never been seen in public before. Others are on display for the first time in decades. They’re all crammed into an implausibly small gallery. But in some ways this only heightens the sense of uncovered, teeming treasure. This show is either a controlled explosion or a Pandora’s Box. You decide. Either way, it’s exciting.
A description of the first ever item of scrimshaw known to enter a museum defined it concisely: “Tooth of a Sperm Whale, Curiously Carved.”
But scrimshaw goes a little beyond that.
Properly understood, the term describes the objects made by whalers, during their leisure hours at sea, from the hard byproducts of the whale hunt. Those hard byproducts include sperm whale teeth (sperm whales being the only great whales with teeth), but also walrus tusks, skeletal bone, and baleen.
Sperm whale teeth engraved with images are one kind of scrimshaw. But so are a miscellany of carved three-dimensional objects, including swifts (folding devices used for winding yarn), the heads of walking canes, umbrella handles, busks, and cribbage boards.
Coming just over 10 years after the amalgamation of the Kendall Whaling Museum’s scrimshaw collection with the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s own collection, the exhibit is timed to coincide with the publication of a superb book on the subject, “Ingenious Contrivances Curiously Carved: Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum.” The book has more than 700 color illustrations, with detailed captions, and a text written by Stuart M. Frank.
Frank is the world’s leading scrimshaw expert. He’s not only the museum’s senior curator, but the executive director of the Kendall Whaling Museum, and the founder and director of Scrimshaw Forensics Laboratory, which has revolutionized research into scrimshaw.
If you’re interested in scrimshaw, in other words, you’re in safe hands with Frank.
Of course, what makes these products of idleness so interesting is not just the novelty of the objects themselves; it’s their intimate connection to an extraordinary chapter in global history.
New Bedford was right at the center of 19th-century whaling. In the middle of that century, it was one of the richest cities in America. Its whaling fleet, which produced all its wealth, was the largest and the most far-ranging in the world. The product it created — whale oil, used for lubrication and for illumination, via clean-burning candles — helped power the early Industrial Revolution.
The whaling industry flourished, of course, at the expense of whales, and there’s a whole other story. But to get at these whales, whaling ships ventured farther and farther from their home ports. By the middle of the 19th century, whaling voyages could last three to five years.
The mission, hunting whales, required surplus crew. There might be dozens of men on board any given ship who had virtually nothing to do for months on end. The hunting itself and the handling of the carcass involved intense, back-breaking work. But in the intervals, what was a whaler to do?
Like any art form, scrimshaw has its pre-history, in this case going back to the Vikings. But the practice really got going among American and British whalers in the early 19th century. At that point, the demand for sperm whale teeth as an item of exchange, which had been particularly high among Pacific Islanders, tapered off, mainly because supply overwhelmed it.
The first example of classic scrimshaw, which Frank defines as a sperm whale tooth that has an engraved picture and an inscription, was made by a British whaler, in 1817. But after that, it was Yankee whalers — men like Edward Burdett, Frederick Myrick, and N.S. Finney — who got the practice of scrimshaw going.
Finney, described by Frank as “arguably the greatest pictorial scrimshaw-maker of all time,” was the first and only artist to make a living from the practice. Many of the other artists remained anonymous.
The pictures they engraved on whalebone and tooth were wide-ranging. But visual protocols developed quickly. Many were sentimental depictions of home life and sweethearts. These and others, such as the portrayals of “Liberty” and “Justice” on two whale teeth from the middle of the 19th century, were based on generic magazine illustrations. Others still depicted ships, battles, and of course, the dramatic business of whaling itself.
At some point, the carving of elaborately handled pie crimpers and jagging wheels caught on among whalers. These are among the most spectacular items in the display. There is, for instance, a pie crimper with a handle in the shape of a hippocampus (a mythical horse-like creature with a fish’s tail). It was carved by Captain Robert Jones, a New Bedford whaling master.
The swifts, used for working with yarn, can be incredibly elaborate, too. These objects — utilitarian but elaborately adorned — were made by whalers for their wives and sweethearts and were to be used in their absence.
They were usually made from whale bone, rather than teeth. Frank describes them as “the glory and the greatest challenge of scrimshaw-making.” They required intricate engineering, he continues, as well as laborious cutting, polishing, and constructing, using dozens of moving parts. On top of all this, they were often as elaborately decorated as other forms of scrimshaw.
There’s something very moving about scrimshaw. Take away the now exotic-seeming materials, and in many ways it resembles the art made in prisons today, which can be incredibly labor-intensive, detailed, somewhat pro forma, and yes, sentimental.
Whalers were usually trapped on board their ships voluntarily, of course, and they were involved in a great adventure with, hopefully, financial rewards at the end. But scrimshaw is all about what can emerge from enforced confinement and, above all, boredom. In that sense (and many others) it might be a good thing to expose your kids to.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.