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Scrimshaw

19th Century

A whale’s tooth in the form of a ‘box’ with two halves slotting into each other, possibly used as a snuff box. Decorated with Scrimshaw work; with a ship engraved on one side and flags and an anchor on the other.

In simple terms, Scrimshaw generally describes the art of scratching, or inscribing of a design on a piece of ivory, bone, horn, shell, or antler, or many other natural materials, to produce decorative objects, jewellery, and useful items.

Some experts claim that the only true scrimshaw work is of a nautical nature, completed by sailors on whaling vessels. Sperm whales were pursued all over the world for their superior oil; the fact that these whales have teeth was of added interest to the sailors.

Each sailor was allotted his share of teeth, and bone, to decorate or carve as he wished, and this became a way to pass the long hours. Some of the sailors had an artistic ability and were able to sell, or trade their scrimshaw work with other men on the ship or with vendors when they reached a port. The scenes that were inscribed often depicted the activities and dreams that took place during their long voyages.