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Of Ink and Bone

Busk with engraved initials M.S., mid 19th century, panbone, pigment. Private collection. Photo provided by Alan Granby.

At a new exhibit at the Cahoon Museum of American Art, history is recorded through scrimshaw by the whalers who knew their quest better than anyone else.

What Tales You’d Tell, 

Thou Tooth From the Sperm Whale

– J.E. Walton, Scrimshander

“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 fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander (sic) 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.” — from Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

Because the south coast of Massachusetts, including the Cape and Islands, enjoyed such prominence in the whaling industry, many of the “little ingenious contrivances” that Moby Dick’s Ishmael witnessed would have been carved by whalemen from Nantucket, the Vineyard, Cotuit, Mashpee, and New Bedford, among other coastal towns and cities. And while the art of scrimshaw became known worldwide, the most active and productive period of scrimshandering spanned only a few decades in the first half of the 19th century. The New Bedford Whaling Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of scrimshaw, states: “Contrary to popular belief in many quarters, which ascribes the origin of pictorial scrimshaw to American hands, the first practitioners to adorn sperm whale teeth were British South Sea whalers, a few of whose pioneering works survive in the Museum collection. The…

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