As can happen when we have a special exhibit, other members of our community cull through their collections and find similar items to loan items to the museum. Our continuing exhibit of rare Inuit items is now joined by an exceptional number of collectible scrimshaw carvings.
On loan from Edna Haberle, past president and current member of our board of directors, is her collection of scrimshaw ivory accessories from Alaska. The collection consists of ivory bracelets, bracelets that are a combination of ivory and baleen, and an exquisitely carved ivory necklace. Also included are two carved scrimshaw figures.
Scrimshaw is the practice of carving using ivory taken from sea animals but mainly whales. In the 1800’s, whale oil was used primarily in the production of lamp oil and soap. To meet the demand, the United States had more whaling ships afloat than any other country. In 1846, there were 640 registered whaling ships, more than three times the rest of the world combined. These were sailing ships. There were often weeks or even months between casting off and the sighting of whales. Consequently, there were extended period of monotony. The word Scrimshaw itself probably comes from the Dutch expression meaning to “waste time.” In other words, anything a seaman did in his off time was considered and called “scrimshaw.” It was during this time that the sailors would use, what was then considered to be, worthless leftover teeth from the processed whales to create gifts for loved ones. For the sailors, these ivory gifts represented the hard and lonely life they experienced during the long and dangerous voyages.
Sailors scrimshaw carvings began with a whale tooth. The ivory tooth was scraped and sanded until it was smooth. Then, using a knife, a scene or message was cut into the surface. Once done, the ivory was coated with ink generally taken from an Octopus. Some sailors were more artistic than others and were able to carve figurines from the ivory and found a market for their wares back in port. Sailors that were not as gifted soon learned they could cover the ivory with an etching. Using a needle, they would then prick the outline of the image, then “connect the dots” once the paper was removed. Soon sailors were making more money selling their scrimshaw than they did as crew members.
Towards the end of the 1800’s natural gas and other petroleum products replaced the need for whale oil. Although not totally gone, those left in the whaling industry were forced to change and become more efficient. The ivory “by-product” now became part of the bounty of the whaling ship owners. As America entered the twentieth century, native Alaskans replaced whalers as a source of scrimshaw artwork.
Since 1972, in the United States, the sale of ivory is strictly controlled. Raw ivory cannot be shipped interstate. When sold in-state it must be accompanied by a certificate that it was taken prior to 1972. In many states small, cheap “scrimshaw” items can be found in abundance. Generally, these items are laser etched and mass produced. Real scrimshaw pieces are one-of-a-kind items. If you see several items that appear to be identical, they probably are counterfeits.
This exhibit of antique and collectable Inuit and scrimshaw items ends October 31. You Vanishing Texana Museum is open every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11-4. Admission and parking are free at our 300 S. Bolton location.