The Henry Ford
Henry Ford Museum Greenfield Village IMAX Theatre Benson Ford Research Center Ford Rouge Factory Tour
Explore & Learn

pic archive  
Scrimshaw whale’s tooth, about 1820. ID.2004.46.1 G6982

January 2006

A Sailor’s Tribute

This whale’s tooth, inscribed with patriotic symbols by an unknown sailor, speaks volumes about the lives of Americans nearly 200 years ago.

Whales were an important part of the American economy from the time of the American Revolution until the Civil War. Whale oil, made from boiling whale blubber, was the essential form of lighting fluid and lubricant during this period. Whalebone, whale teeth and baleen, a hard material found in the whale’s mouth, were used in an extraordinary variety of ways as corset stays, hair combs, tool handles and jewelry, as well as inlay and ornaments for all kinds of wooden products.

In the 1770s, as many as 360 whaling vessels, each with 30 to 35 men aboard, sailed out of colonial ports. In the 1830s, more than 38 East Coast ports hosted significant whaling fleets. As many as 75 whaling ships sailed out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, alone, on voyages that took them away from home for two to five years.

These long voyages provided plenty of monotony, so whalers took up various pastimes, particularly the art of scrimshaw. Scrimshaw involves engraving or carving whale baleen, bones or teeth, and has been practiced by native peoples along the Northwest Coast of the United States for nearly two thousand years. New England’s Yankee whalers picked up the tradition in the early 1800s. (The word scrimshaw seems to have derived from Dutch and English words describing the wasting of time!) Whalers made this art distinctly their own—an occupational pastime and art form that was intimately related to the men’s shipboard work routine, tools and materials at hand, and topics of daily conversation.


MORE: A Sailor’s Tribute

The subject matter could range from wives and sweethearts to ships and nautical creatures to patriotic or political themes. For the most part, the products were meant as souvenirs or mementos for family and friends back home. Incising, carving and coloring with ink a single work could take anywhere from 50 to 1,000 hours, depending on the amount of detail. The artwork could be so exquisite and the raw material so plentiful, that sailors were sometimes paid in whale’s teeth and encouraged to trade their products for cash in foreign ports.

This early 1800s piece of scrimshaw, the work of a common seaman, demonstrates that not all skrimshanders were accomplished artists. But the symbols—the eagle, cannon and flag—speak loudly of his sense of American nationalism in an era when the nation was new and its place on the international scene unsure. The phrase, “Peace, Independence and Plenty” conveys a popular re-interpretation of the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” expressed in the Declaration of Independence. What American today does not subscribe to similar values—even though they would not think of scratching them onto a whale’s tooth?


William S. Pretzer
Curator of Political History

This scrimshaw whale’s tooth appears in our new exhibit, With Liberty and Justice for All, opening January 16, 2006.

Copyright © 2014 The Henry Ford
The Henry Ford is an AAM accredited institution. The complex is an independent, non-profit, educational
institution not affiliated with the Ford Motor Company or the Ford Foundation.