During the nineteenth century, whaling in America was a big business, despite being one of the most treacherous ventures of the period. Voyages were long, labor was intensive and living conditions were life threatening. Still, at its height, whaling made fortunes for some and provided work for thousands. Sag Harbor and other port communities thrived. It is estimated that by 1846, more than 750 whaling ships, set out to roam the globe. That meant that locally, thousands of men were working for years at a time aboard whaling ships.
To help the whalers pass the time they spent at sea, they would carve or engrave the teeth and bones of the whales. The whalers were artists, and the art they created is called scrimshaw.
Here are some examples of scrimshaw from the collection of the East Hampton Historical Society. In addition to carving ships, the whalers would often carve images from home, scenes of the landscape, and their loved ones. Or they would take the tooth or bone, and carve it into something they could use, such as a knife, dominoes, or a tray.
Museums, like the East Hampton Historical Society, are chartered to care for the proper collection, preservation, and research of scrimshaw which was created during the 19th and early 20th century. Today, it is illegal to carve teeth and bone into scrimshaw, and to possess or sell
mammal parts of any kind. These laws were established to prevent the purposeful hunting of animals, like whales, which would have pushed species to the point of extinction.
How would you design your piece of scrimshaw?
Imagine the year is 1850 and you are on a whaling ship which sailed out of Sag Harbor. You have been aboard for 18 months and you have been improving upon your scrimshaw craft, which helps you pass the time. Use this template to draw what you would carve into your own piece of whale tooth or bone, or you can draw how you might carve this into something entirely different.