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Object of the Month- Fashion Scrimsaw

For this month’s special artifact, I have selected one of the pieces from our scrimshaw collection. Now, I am personally not a fan of the idea of scrimshaw, but I thought it would be good to share what it is and the history behind it to our readers. I picked this particular piece because of the two women depicted.

Before discussing our object, I want to share some about the art of scrimshaw. These pieces are usually made by sailors aboard whaling ships and often depict landscapes, while many are drawings of magazine illustrations, like particular one. The oldest examples of scrimshaw are from the 1600’s and are dutch made. However, scrimshaw did not become popular until 19th century New England whalers picked up the art.

At times when there were no whales for the sailors and after the chores had been done, they would resort to scratching on ivory, bone or teeth to pass the time. They would use needles or knives and a combination of ink to craft images of whales, women, landscapes or whatever else they could think up at the time.

Fashion Scrimshaw tooth.

There were times when these scrimshaw pieces had a purpose on board, but typically they were just for entertainment or decoration. The part I don’t like about scrimshaw is that it is made from a whale bone, baleen, sperm whale’s teeth and walrus tusks. While there are laws against that now, in the 19th century when scrimshaw was popular, there were no laws in regards to using these bones.

As far as our fashion tooth, the clothing on the women suggest that it is from around the 1870’s. WE believe that it was replicating an illustration in a magazine, but this is not confirmed. She is part of a set but I chose to focus on this particular one because it features two women interacting while the other piece only show one woman.

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