Scrimshaws and their Origins
Scrimshaws – The definition of scrimshaw according to the Oxford English Dictionary is:
scrimshaw, n. Pronunciation: /ˈskrɪmʃɔː/
Etymology: Of obscure origin; the surname Scrimshaw, if not actually the source, may have influenced the form of the word.
A general name (also scrimshaw work) for the handicrafts practised by sailors by way of pastime during long whaling and other voyages, and for the products of these, as small manufactured articles, carvings on bone, ivory, or shells, and the like.
Most people think of scrimshaws as pieces of teeth or bone from whales that were decorated with intricate carvings by sailors in their spare time aboard the whaling ships. It does, however, refer to anything that a sailor would craft to while away their spare time. Latches, cane and umbrella handles, animal figures and corset busks to name but a few. If the sailor was not particularly gifted in carving bone then boxes made from wood would also be fashioned and these were also known as scrimshaws. Ivory inlays could be traded between sailors to decorate the boxes.
The life of a sailor on board a whaling ship was very hard. A voyage could take the sailor away from home for up to 3 or 4 years. Several weeks and even months could pass between the whale sightings so it was important for the morale of the sailors that they did not become bored during these slack times. Occupying themselves in their spare time making scrimshaws was a good way to keep the minds of the sailors busy so they did not dwell on their hard living and working conditions.
The scrimshaws made from ivory bone and whale teeth become the most popular and the tooth of choice for the scrimshander was the tooth of the sperm whale. These teeth were plentiful and small enough to be stowed in a sailors sea chest until his return. The scrimshander would smooth off the ridges on the tooth with sharkskin or pumice and then polish it to a high lustre. The engraving could then begin using either a knife or old sailcloth needle. Once the picture had been engraved soot, oven grease or gunpowder would be rubbed into the engraving so that the picture would stand out and could be seen more clearly. The engravings usually depicted ships, whales, whaling scenes, sea creatures, the captain or loved ones back home.
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