American scrimshaw or at least a comparable type of art form has been discovered by archeologists to date back to 100-200 AD. Scrimshaw has been practiced for centuries by native groups along the Northwest Coast. Not wanting to simply discard the teeth and bones of animals hunted for food, native cultures invented a new style of art that would later be known as Scrimshaw, one of only a few indigenous American crafts. Globally, many cultures worked in ivory and bone utilizing the style of North American cultures and that of the northern sailor, who came later, were distinctly their own, lifting American Scrimshaw as a traditional art form. It was adopted by the northern whale men of the early 1800’s. Two- to five-year voyages quickly became monotonous, so the whale men turned to working with baleen, whale teeth, and jawbones, all of which were in abundant supply. In fact, on many ships, whale teeth were part of the pay and were often traded in port for goods or services. The origin of the word is obscure; one interesting etymology is a Dutch phrase meaning “to waste one’s time!” The term “scrimshaw” also applies to carved or pierced bone or ivory, since much of the whale men’s work was carved rather than etched.
Scrimshaw is a slow and tedious art process. There is not much room for error and a tiny mistake may render a project ruined. Scrimshaw requires great patience and a steady hand. Each piece can take many hours to complete. Scrimshaw is usually defined as carving or embellishment of ivory or bone. Today’s definition would more likely be thought of as the intricate incising of ivory to produce images of unbelievable detail. Incising and engraving could both describe the scrimshaw method. Extremely sharp scribes scratch the surface of the ivory, and then paint or ink is rubbed into the incisions. Stippling is a technique of employing thousands of minute holes that are then carefully filled with pigment to reveal a beautiful work of art and to create the fine shading.
Scrimshanders (scrimshaw artists) are still practicing this beautiful art form today. Their work is in high demand and very collectable. Their procedures and great proficiencies create the modern masterpieces that contribute to the ever increasing collector’s value of this compelling and historical American art form. This era of scrimshanders has produced the finest scrimshaw pieces ever produced.
Most scrimshaw is done on shed antler. However other sources of bone and ivory include legal elephant, antique piano keys and fossil ivories. Scrimshaw is also seen on horns like the black powder horns used for hunting.
Scrimshaw combines the allure of history, fine art, and heritage making it not only a potentially valuable investment but an investment in our heritage. It connects us from cave paintings to the masterpieces of the modern world.. Maybe the value scrimshaw collectors see far surpasses the dollar.