Whaling & Scrimshaw

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Whaling was a huge international trade for hundreds of years. Before the invention of plastics, there were countless unique materials that could only be found within the body of a whale.

Whales were hunted for meat for their bones, and for their oil. Whale products were found in margarine, in candles, in industrial lubricants, in perfume and in all manner of other items. Getting hold of these leviathans, however, was as hard going as it was lucrative. With the owners of whalers making big bucks, working as a sailor on one of these vessels had an obvious appeal to the average man. Adventure, the high seas, travel, loads of hearty whale meat, all that infamous sea-board rum AND a fat pay check at the end: it sounds great.

Moby Dick is one of the world’s most famous whales, the titular star of Herman Melville’s novel where he turned his experiences working on a whaling ship into great literature. But novels written back on dry land aren’t the only intriguing works of art that emerged from whaling expeditions: there was also scrimshaw.

Scrimshaw was easier to create than a novel, and was a unique form of folk art contributed to by sailors on board whaling ships across the whole world. There was a surprising amount of free time on a whaling ship, as the only moments when everyone was working simultaneously were when they were directly chasing whales. Whalers would often be out at sea for many months, which means that the free time between whales added up. As well as free time, it was also easy to find the other two things scrimshaw required: knives and the ivory or bones of whales.

That’s right, scrimshaw is artwork etched onto the surface of the bones or the tusks or teeth of whales. Sailors would often carve intricate pictures and patterns onto these surfaces in order to have a cheap but thoughtful gift for their sweethearts when they got home. Men would spend huge amounts of time carving beautiful pictures, with some of the more gifted scrimshaw artists often swapping less pleasant on-board tasks for their superior art.


The two pictures above are examples of scrimshaw we saw recently in the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, but there are extant examples in maritime museums across the world. Making scrimshaw was an easy way to pass the time, back when sailors not only lacked television as a distraction, but also when many were illiterate.

Scrimshaw showcases a unique material and an age-old impulse: trying to make something pretty and romantic to give as a gift to someone special. Almost all scrimshaw is romantic in tone, thinking of a distant lover as the sailor shivers in his bunk in the middle of the cold ocean. Some is pornographic, but not as much as you’d maybe expect. In between catching, killing and dissecting a whale, sailors weren’t thinking about sex, they were thinking about making something beautiful, expressive and worth keeping. This is the kind of folk art we at Modern Folk love – objects with a history, objects with a story, and objects with a heart.