A Whale Bone Umbrella?! The Whaler’s Art of Scrimshaw

whale tooth_web image
Whale’s tooth, 1910-1940, New-York Historical Society, 1943.10

This Sunday, families who take part in our Lost Arts: Scrimshaw program will get to see examples of scrimshaw, an art form practiced by sailors on whaling expeditions in the nineteenth century.  Scrimshaw makers, called scrimshanders, most often made elaborate carvings into sperm whale teeth. Families will see examples of these and will carve their own “scrimshaw” with candles on Sunday. But scrimshaw is more than pictures carved into teeth- it’s any work of art or useful object carved by a whaler at sea using the byproducts of his (or her- sometimes sailors’ wives sailed and made scrimshaw) industry. These materials include whale teeth, bones, baleen and items found on a ship or in the places where ships docked. Let’s see what we can learn about whalers from looking at the stuff they created on their journeys.

Umbrella, 1850, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, INV.8413

It was not uncommon for whalemen to carve handles for umbrellas out of whale bones, like in the umbrella above from 1850. This umbrella was owned by a man named Gordon L. Ford who used to leave it at his sweetheart Emily Ellsworth Fowler’s house every time he visited so he would always have an excuse to visit again. They got married in 1853 and called this “the courting umbrella.” There’s more whalebone here than just the handle though- where else might it be? Why do you think whalers made umbrella handles?

The ladle below was made from a sperm whale’s jaw bone, some metal, and a certain type of fruit. Can you guess what it is? Items like these tell us about the places where whalers traveled. Where do you think a whaler may have gotten that fruit? Why do you think whaleships traveled to places like these?

Ladle, 1840-1860, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1943.44

Every now and then a folk artist got truly creative with whale bones. What whale bone do you think was used to make the seat of this chair? That bone is more than a foot wide- what does that tell you about the size of the whale it came from? Think about the skill it took to make something like this. What kind of job or special training might this artist have had, besides knowing how capture whales?

whale seat
Seat, 1750-1850,Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1947.261

If you want to learn more about the whaler’s art of scrimshaw, and why people hunted whales, register for our Lost Arts: Scrimshaw class for 6-10 year olds and their grown-ups.  See you then!


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