Sunday, August 28, 2016

Keepsakes from Mariner Ancestors: Scrimshaw Art

Scrimshaw is art engraved on ivory or bone and dates back to the 18th century. Whalers and other seamen had the means - plentiful whale teeth, walrus tusks and other bone - to make wonderful designs on this medium, often making their own engraving tools as well. Sometimes tints were added for a more colourful effect.
Mariners also needed a hobby to while away periods of inactivity - if they were becalmed, for example - and also to fashion gifts to take back home to wives and sweethearts. The subjects showed their routine at sea - ships, lighthouses, whales - as well as famous and fascinating people, e.g. Horatio Nelson or imaginative mermaids, or a pretty girl left behind ashore.  A favourite item was a decorated bone corset busk, something the girl could carry near her heart.

Pocket knife with marlin spike (modern)
Unfortunately, these pieces, often intricate in design, remained anonymous and were not signed. They are nevertheless a commemoration of the men who made them and the hard life the mariners led.  Nowadays there are many copies of antique scrimshaw work, usually not on ivory which is a restricted material. 

Antique scrimshaw pieces

Two examples of scrimshaw showing the Eddystone Lighthouse,
one in a calm sea the other with stormy waves.

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