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Lynda Cain
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Published: 1 November 2016

The American Scrimshander’s Art

A folk art created by artisans without formal training, scrimshaw is the product of a very significant era in American economic and trade history. Created by the crews of whaling ships, scrimshaw served as a method of passing the time between hunts and ports-of-call. Incised, carved or inlaid, scrimshaw was made from bone, baleen, and sundry items found in exotic locales (sea shells, coconuts, woods and walrus). The heyday of this whaling era fell between the 1820s and 1850s when whale oil was an essential commodity.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville provides one of the best descriptions of the American Scrimshander’s art. “Throughout the Pacific, and also in Nantucket, and New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fisherman themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the Whalemen call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material, in their hours of ocean leisure. Some of them have little boxes of dentistical-looking implements, specially intended for the skrimshandering business. But, in general, they toil with their jack-knives alone; and with that almost omnipotent tool of the sailor, they will turn you out anything you please, in the way of a mariner’s fancy.”

Sources of “mariner’s fancy” were wide spread from images of whaling and ships at sea, to patriotic figures or devices, novels or theater, military scenes, commemorative events, romantic and religious scenes, and images from popular prints- including ladies fashion. Among the types of scrimshawed objects made were small boxes, pie crimpers, swifts used for yarn, busks, sewing devices, knitting needle, and canes.  In Freeman’s November 16 American Furniture, Folk & Decorative Arts auction, a prominent Connecticut collector’s assortment of scrimshawed Americana will be made available for sale.

Today’s collectors must be aware of the highly regulated scrimshaw market. The Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and some international conventions restrict the harvest and sale of ivory, with the goal of protecting vulnerable species from exploitation and extinction. There are rules and exceptions for walrus tusks and ancient ivory, and for materials that are more than a hundred years old.  One must also be aware of state laws that created their own restrictions.  Freeman's Americana specialists have worked tirelessly to ensure that the scrimshaw works being offered in our November 16 American Furniture, Folk & Decorative Arts auction meet all state and federal mandates regarding the sale of such items. Maintaining the balance between the preservation of these types of traditional American folk art and the ecological impact contemporary manufacture of scrimshaw would have is of the utmost importanance to them. 

For any questions about the representations of The American Scrimshander’s Art being offered at auction, please contact one of our Americana specialists:

Lynda Cain | 267.414.1237 | lcain@freemansauction.com
Whitney Bounty | 267.414.1254 | wbounty@freemansauction.com

View the Americana Auction Catalogue

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