Inside the Collection

Treasures from the collection: Scrimshaw

Photograph of Scrimshaw
A10889 Scrimshaw, depicting Maori people and native animals and plants, bullock horn / wood,, 1860-1870. Collection: MAAS

Scrimshandering, Schrimshonter, schrimshander or scrimshaw as we know it, is the art of carving or decorating whale bone, whales teeth and walrus tusks.

The Museum has eclectic and fascinating collections from parasols to fans, netsuke and scrimshaw. The earliest examples of scrimshaw were acquired around the 1900s. The bullock horn pictured above was carved by a member of the New Zealand Royal Artillery in the 1860s. Often pieces are unsigned and difficult to date but, fortunately the Museum has some information about this piece.

The originators of scrimshaw decoration is unknown, although suggestions range from the Eskimos to the South Sea Islanders. It is thought the craft developed onboard whaling ships where the equipment was already available: sail needles, jack knives and other metal tools; whale or walrus teeth and bones; Indian ink or lamp black; illustrations from old newspapers and plenty of time. During the course of a whaling voyage, which sometimes lasted up to five years, there would be long periods of calm when the ship was waiting for a wind to take it to the whaling ground. Sailors would occupy themselves with various shipboard crafts like rope or string work, or wood carving. They would also draw or trace pictures onto bone from whales already caught and processed. This apparently was not always a voluntary task as was noted in the log of a whaler in 1836: “as an idle head is the workshop of the devil, employed Scrhimshon” 1

Photograph of Scrimshaw, depicting sailing ship with symbols
Scrimshaw, 88/800 detail, depicting sailing ship with symbols, bullock horn / metal, made by Thomas Clarke, Australia, 1820-1840. Collection: MAAS

The best known scrimshaw are the purely decorative engravings found on baleen and whale teeth. The subjects of these engravings are extremely varied with some drawn freehand, based on a sailor’s experience, while others were copied from popular magazines of the time. Inscriptions, particularly those that identify ships and places are rare and generally it is difficult to date a piece solely on stylistic grounds.

Photograph of Hunting horn with scrimshaw
A7333 Hunting horn with scrimshaw, depicting hunting scenes, buffalo horn, made by Robert Honess, Australia, 1820-1830. Collection: MAAS

Whaling in the Pacific was opened up at the end of the eighteenth century by sailors mainly from American, English and French vessels. As a result some of the best scrimshaw from Pacific whales can be found in collections in these countries. Even though sailors must have had plenty of spare time between periods of whaling scrimshaw on whale teeth seems a rarity before the 1830s. One reason may have been the high price paid for whale teeth ivory in this period making scrimshaw on teeth popular only after the market was saturated and the price dropped. The earliest identified engraver of whale teeth is the English whaling master Captain J. S. King who was active between 1817 and 1823.

Photograph of decorated Whale teeth
E4529 Whale teeth (8), decorated, made by Alfred Evans, Australia, acquired 1914. Collection: MAAS

Although there were many American whaling ships much of the surviving scrimshaw is of British origin. Whaling ships also used Australian and New Zealand ports to re-supply and this accounts for much of the foreign scrimshaw found in these countries. Australian whaling was conducted on a smaller scale making Australian scrimshaw harder to find. The piece above is one of several pieces of scrimshaw donated to the Museum in 1914 by the wife of Alfred Evans who carved these pieces of scrimshaw between 1855 and 1865. Early pieces with a direct provenance to a carver are rare and ones from Australia even rarer facts which certainly add to the significance of this object.

Serious collecting of scrimshaw in America began in the 1940s when it was recognized as a unique form of folk art. President Kennedy was a collector of scrimshaw and this did much to popularise its collecting . After he was assassinated in 1963, a piece of scrimshaw was placed alongside him in his coffin.

Changes in attitudes and legislation towards whaling globally have seen the introduction of the Endangered Species Act and international conventions restrict the harvest and sale of ivory to try to reverse the scarcity of ivory-bearing animals.

Written by Anni Turnbull, Curatorial


1. Willis, Geoffrey, Ivory, A Mayflower Handbook,Great Britain, 1970.

McClelland Gallery, ‘Scrimshaw the Sailor’s Art‘, McClelland Gallery, Victoria, Australia, 1986

West, J, and Credland, G, ‘Scrimshaw: The Art of the Whaler’, Hutton Press, Yorkshire, England, 1995


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *