Sunday, August 8, 2010

Scrimshaw - Whaling Museum

Had a wonderful three days in Boston and New Bedford, Massachusetts. My honey took me to the Whaling Museum and I could have spent days there.  Just a marvelous museum that showcases the history of whaling in early America.  So much to share that it will take more than one posting so I will post over this week the highlights of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  (all photos enlarge when you click on them)

Today's post will feature scrimshaw, the art form that is considered by some to be the only art form that originated in America, since the art of Scrimshaw was first practiced by sailors working on whaling ships out of New England.  Scrimshaw is the art of "drawing" pictures on polished ivory, bone or horn with a sharp tool or knife. The scratched surface is rubbed with ink, and when the ink is removed, it remains in the carved areas.

The word Scrimshaw actually came from a slang expression that was used to refer to anything that was the product of a seaman's idle time, or items that were produced while engaged in the act of loafing. While out at sea there were often several weeks, or even months, that would pass between whale sightings. It was during that time that the sailors would practice their scrimshaw.  Scrimshaw was most popular in the early 1800's, when the whaling industry was at its peak. By the late 1800's, Scrimshaw as an art form, all but died away.  A whaling captain always carried a full barrel or two of raw whale teeth from the previous voyage. Outbound voyages often took 6- to 9-months to arrive at favorable Sperm whaling grounds. Normal ship maintenance and longboat drills could only fill some of this transit time, and with no gambling, card playing, or drinking allowed on most Quaker-owned whaling ships, scrimshaw was encouraged to occupy free time. From this barrel, the Captain had first choice of several teeth, then the First mate, Second Mate, Third Mate, boatsteerers, cooper, blacksmith and cook. By the time greenhands were allowed to choose, only poor teeth remained in the bottom of the barrel.

Gift to the ship's captain.  A scrimshaw and wooden watch stand to emulate a grandfather clock. About 24 inches high.

Engraved (scrimshaw) whale tooth, about  9 inches in length.

Absolutely lovely pie crimpers and kitchen tools.  These range in size from 12 inches to about 2 inches.  Highly detailed of mythical creatures, lace patterns and inlay.  Gifts for their wives, sisters, daughters and girlfriends.

Extraordinary pie crimper of a mermaid. This beauty measures about 10 inches in length.  Crimpers were tools used almost daily as "pies" were a staple at the New England table.  Meat pies filled with rich gravies and potatoes needed to be "crimped" closed before baked or fried.

Beautiful scrimshaw corset Buskers. The corset busk, perfect for flattening the stomach, was originally a flat piece of wood slipped down inside a pocket at the front of the corset.   A very personal gift for the women in the sailor's lives.  This was carved and shaped from the fringed plates of the upper jaw of the whale.

These pieces were huge...about 3 feet in length and 12 inches at the width.  Pair of extraordinary scrimshaw work on the jawpans of the whale.  

Closeup of detail of above piece, top piece of the pair shown above.

The detail carved on these teeth are incredible.  Life like portraits of a little girl and a family member.  Whalebone teeth and egg cup.

And now my favorites...sewing items for women.  Marvelous whalebone swift.  A swift is used for winding yarn.  This swift is supported on a sewing box with tiny drawers for threads and needles.  This is a large swift measuring almost 2 feet high.

Another swift with spool holders and a pin cushion on top. This swift measured no more than 12 high.  So much detail.

Lovely lace knitting basket fashioned from whale bone.  Needles are whalebone and wood.  Oh how I would love to knit with these.

Whale ivory lantern that held candles for light.

Lovely hatbox. Highly detailed and full of color.

Lovely thread tower crafted from whale ivory. About 18 inches high.

Sweet and small thread wheel.  Whalebone, carved and shaped.

Finches were often brought back from far away lands and whalebone birdcages were crafted. 

The clenched fist was a popular theme for the scrimshaw craftsman.  Often used for cane heads or bodkins.

Another favorite theme of the carver were the "bawdy" ladies legs and boots.  Three walking canes.

Scrimshaw whale tooth and lovely carved quilt clamp.

Whalebone tooth ink well and stand.

Whale jawbone with exposed teeth.  The largest of these teeth measured approximately 9 inches in lengthThere was so much beautiful scrimshaw to look at.  I could have taken hundreds of photos.  What these sailors created during their down time is nothing less then extraordinary.  What I did learn at the museum is that every portion of the whale was utilized in their quest for whale oil.  The oil that lit the world.  Have a wonderful week and blessings to you and those you love.  Sea Witch


misselaineous said... soon as I saw the teeny picture on my blog list I said " Are you In New Bedford??" Not fair...I grew up literally a spit from there and the Whaling Museum was a required field trip for the school I attended. This proximity also caused my mother's total infatuation with whales & whaling...and harpoons and other tools of whale annihilation..and she even learned how to scrimshaw. She made several pieces before moving on to the next craft in line for that time {1971 or so} Hope you're having a great trip...there really are mermaids in "New Beffa"!! *elaine*

Marguerite (Tina) Smith Hart said...

Hey you're back!
Looks like a great trip although my heart goes out to the whales and thank God we in this country have evolved beyond that, but the art work done by these sailors is amazing. My dad had a few pieces he had collected from his merchant seaman days. Sadly when he died in 1987, no ones seems to know what happened to them.
I can hardly wait to see the rest of your visit!
Tina xo

just call me jo said...

Scrimshaw has to give flight to your sea-loving heart. It's beautiful. I envy you. Think of the hands that carved and worked that ivory. So exotic and magic.

Chris said...

I could have looked at 100 more photos. Every piece is beautiful!

I think my favorite was the sewing basket.

Thank you so much for sharing this and I'll be waiting to see more!

Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...

What talented artists these old seamen were! I feel bad for the guys who had no artistic abilities (there must have been a lot!) What did they do to pass their time? I am impressed at all the things they made for their wives back home. It shows how much they missed them. I'm sure these items were treasured family possessions. I had no idea that there were so many varieties of items made of whalebone. What a life that must have been! Thank you so much for sharing, and for all the great pictures!


Decorating With Art said...

Wowwwwwww..... I would have loved to have gone. I have dabbled in scrimshaw myself and can really appreciate it. Thank you so much for the pictures.


Unknown said...

Oh, my!! I had no idea so much was carved from whale bone. My favorite are the pie crimpers. The corset busker, mmmm...not so much!!

Beach House Living said...

It is sad this continues today under the guise of research when it is not necessary. I too am glad it's not a trade in the US at least however the knowledge at the time did make for some pieces that are intricately done.

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

Such beautiful examples of craftsmanship! Your photos are wonderful.

I visited the same museum years ago as my brother lives in a town along the southern coast of Massachusetts and we went to new Bedford to sight see and have dinner. Did you see the church that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick?

Madame DeFarge said...

These are lovely pieces, although there's a bit of me that bemoans the whales killed in the process. But that's a modern view and doesn't detract from the skill on display.

In the Light of the Moon said...

Holy Cow So many treasures to look at..that closeup is amazing with all that detail!!Thanks for sharing such an adventure with us.Big Hugs,Cat