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Monday 29 March 2021

By Maritime Media Volunteer, Janet Adamson

Thinking about all things maritime, my mind began to wander around what those seamen who were away from home for significant periods of time might do with their time. Whalers, for example, could be away for many months and due to the dangerous nature of their work could not work at night. As demand led them to sail for ever further north, they could be ice-bound so could not work at all.

Some of them expressed themselves through an artform known as scrimshaw. Most prolific during the 1800s, and generally produced by whalers from the UK and America, scrimshaw is the art of incising (with a sharp implement such as a jack knife or a sail needle) or carving on a hard surface such as baleen, skeletal bone and whale ivory such as sperm whale teeth.

Sperm whales were not caught by Hull whalers who worked in the Arctic. They were caught by the American whalers and other whalers, including those from London, sailing to the South Seas who then decorated the teeth. The Hull Museums Collection holds one of the largest collections of scrimshaw on Sperm whale teeth outside of the United States.

This Woman Is Wearing Nineteenth Century Costume Including A Mantle And Lacy Headdress
This Woman Is Wearing Nineteenth Century Costume Including A Mantle And Lacy Headdress

Sperm whales have c.25 conical teeth, so on a voyage where 40 whales might be caught, there was no shortage of materials. Those who participated were called scrimshanders, or scrimshoners and they made functional items such as tools and ships fittings and also decorative items such as ladies busks (bones for corsets), pie crimpers and walking canes.

Their subjects were generally limited to ships, places, and women, sometimes from experience of different cultures, but often copied from books and in the case of women, fashion magazines of the time as ladies in long dresses would have been regarded as ‘pin-ups’ of the era. The designs vary in detail and complexity and reflect the talent and skill of the scrimshander.

This Sperm Whale Tooth Is A Quite Simple Design And Shows A Lady In A Red Dress Riding Side Saddle
This Sperm whale tooth is a quite simple design and shows a lady in a red dress riding side-saddle. The other side has an anchor and is inscribed 'J Warner'.
This Tooth Depicts A Seated Woman In Costume Which Is Possibly Middle Eastern
This tooth depicts a seated woman in costume which is possibly middle eastern and could have been a depiction of a new culture, or it could simply have been copied from a book

Sometimes designs were picked out in dots and dashes, sometimes more sophisticated, their engraved lines were then rubbed with a dark pigment, probably oil and lampblack. Some have additional colours, mostly red or blue added to the detail.

This Is A Sperm Whale Tooth Showing Two Ladies
This is a sperm whale tooth showing two ladies, the design has been carefully picked out with the point of a needle and then burnished with black
This Tooth Is Inscribed Haidee
This tooth is inscribed 'Haidee' on the reverse and stands on a base, again made from a sperm whale tooth. Haidee is from the Spanish fictional legend Don Juan. It is one of a pair, the other depicting Don Juan in similar pose

I can understand why women often featured as I am sure home was sorely missed by those on long voyages.

They were generally respectable images (although some did depict the more erotic) as the scrimshaw was often given as gifts or sold to supplement their income. Perhaps this would explain why there are few examples of wives, girlfriends, and children.

However, the work does usually show women at their best and are an interesting record of costume and culture of the time, if not entirely accurate or always beautiful!

**We endeavour to make sure all the research and facts we present by staff and volunteers is accurate and checked with rigor. However, we are only human so please let us know if you spot any errors.**