Sunday, February 24, 2013

Explanation of a Funny Word: Scrimshaw

Sometimes life takes you places that you would rather have not been. Like knife shows. But sometimes, at said knife shows, you discover something really cool. Like scrimshaw. (Then you feel a little squirm of guilt for having whined about going, even if you only whined to yourself.) Anyway, I got hooked on the stuff and only later found out that 80% of the planet has no idea what scrimshaw is. I get a lot of questions about it, so I thought it might be nice to give a little history and context to the jewelry I make.

This is traditional scrimshaw: 
Photo credit: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

 It's a very old art form, not much used anymore, but kept alive in little pockets. The basic technique involves you, a piece of animal tooth or bone, a pointy object, and a LOT of spare time. So, scrimshaw was a perfect pass-time for bored sailors. It was practiced by Inuit and other Native cultures, but the most elaborately drawn (that I've seen) were often from sailors on long voyages. Whalers had literally tons of bones lying around and months or years of boredom on a boat. So they doodled with their knives and rubbed soot from lamps or grease into the tiny detailed drawings to create very fine black and cream colored designs. Many of the illustrations were from books, if books were available. If you are at all familiar with old intaglio prints, you'll notice a similarity in the illustration style and the use of lines and dots to create light and dark areas.

Teeth, and the long curved bones in the head were some of the most prized parts
to scrimshaw because of their generous size and shape.

Portraits of ladies were popular, (Perhaps it was like having company?) as were ships like the one above. Nautical imagery was most prevalent. Sailors carved tools and personal items from the bones and then decorated them with scrimshaw. From the sailors, scrimshaw spread inland, to household decorations, ladies toiletries, and men's weapons and powder horns, and to other shores as well.

As for the origin of scrimshaw, I've read many accounts of the skill developing among the whalers of New England whose voyages could last as long as 4 years. I've also heard that sailors such as these learned the techniques from the native peoples, such as the Inuits, during long winters. These two links below, especially the first, give a fuller account of the origins and some of the unanswered questions:

Today, "scrimshanders" have evolved the technique and medium further. They often illustrate exotic animals and have added vibrant colors to the traditional black, thanks to great pigments and paints. Abstract or "tribal" patterns have become popular, and just about anything is fair game for subject matter. Illustration styles have strayed from the traditional in several places (including my own). I've also heard of scrimshaw being worked into surfaces such as fine micarta and plastics/resins as well as traditional ivories.

In case you're wondering where I fit in: My scrimshaw is done in a much simplified line-drawing style using colored pencils and sealing waxes. I love botanical motifs and use mainly wooly mammoth and walrus ivories as surfaces for scrimshaw. [These are entirely legal, you know. Please don't think I'm doing something naughty. Despite the art's bloody history, today's scrimshanders are very careful about our materials' histories.] I have tried cow bone, pig bone, and deer antler and bone as well, with varying degrees of success. The long, flat ends of cow's ribs are surprisingly useful. The porosity and hardness of a substance is a large factor in how clearly an image works out. Denser pieces that are not too soft are better for precise drawings.

I'll leave you with a fun fact. While no one knows the exact origin of the word "scrimshaw," it appears to have been from either Dutch or English and the general meaning was "to waste time." Originally, anything that a sailor did on his off-duty hours was called scrimshaw. Most of your free time as a sailor aboard a whaling ship probably involved whale bone in some way, however. Maybe you made tools, cane handles, and other items that could be sold when you eventually got back to port. Maybe you put on puppet shows. Whatever you did, you were all scrimshanders.

 That's all from me for a while. I hope that if you have any questions, you ask them!

-Rachel C


  1. Great article...lots of information. Thanks.

  2. Very informative Rachel! Now I will use the word "Scrimshaw" as a verb when I'm lying about doing "nothin' but wasting time!" Trish (BlackCrowCurios)

    1. You are an evil genius. Why didn't I think of this?!