59 School Street, Box 1310, Edgartown MA 02539 - 508.627.4441
Martha's Vineyard Museum MV Museum


Mid-nineteenth century

Unknown maker

Sperm whale tooth, ink

Gift of Weston Howland

Gift of Mrs. Howard S. Hart

Scrimshaw pieces carved by whalers are among the most compelling objects in the Museum. Highly decorative and often useful, they also illuminate life on board a whaleship.

At sea, the time between whale sightings was spent making repairs and keeping the ship in order and ready for the intense activity that accompanied the hunt and the processing of the whale into valuable sperm oil, whale oil, and baleen. But there was also a lot of downtime. As the hunters traveled farther and farther in search of whales, voyages stretched from months to years. Music and craftwork made the long hours of inactivity bearable.

Abundant time and the byproducts of the hunt—teeth and bone—gave rise to the art of scrimshaw. Carving scenes on sperm whale teeth is the quintessential expression of the scrimshander's art.

In this example, the craftsman has engraved a picture of the hunt on one side of a tooth. The other side shows a ship under sail. Whaleboats have been sent out after their quarry, and the men have harpooned a sperm whale. Bloody spume comes out the whale's blowhole. Sometimes called "chimney afire," it signaled that the whale would soon die.

There are hundreds of pieces of scrimshaw in the Martha's Vineyard Museum collections. One of the largest collections was donated by Chilmark summer resident Weston Howland in 1956. In addition to engraved whales' teeth, the collection includes canes, fids, jagging wheels, busks, bodkins, swifts, and other finely carved objects.