INEVITABLY, SCRIMSHAW calls to mind the whaling days of Nantucket and New Bedford and brings with it echoes of Melville's "Moby Dick." It is a term of American origin applied to craft work made aboard ship, usually a whaler, in a variety of materials, including marine ivory, baleen, even wood.
The great years of American whaling were from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s. There were interminable hours of boredom on the voyages that lasted as long as three or four years. And the word scrimshaw is believed to have evolved from a Dutch expression meaning a lazy person. A scrimshaw project often took months to complete.
The best marine ivory is obtained from the sperm whale, whose lower jaw may contain 40 or 50 sharply pointed and curved teeth. Sailors also used the teeth of other animals, such as the killer whale and elephant seal. And walrus ivory, too, was traded by the Eskimos to whalers in Alaskan waters.
From such material, the artists created an array of articles: boxes, chessmen, embroidery and knitting tools, kitchen articles such as ladles, pastry crimps and rolling pins, and special items such as back scratchers, picture frames, thimbles, salt cellars, buttons, toys--even engraved false teeth.