Much Ado About Scrimshaw. Part Two: The Material.

When people first become curious about scrimshaw they are usually unsure of what exactly they are looking at. After all sailors in the old days encountered and used a wide variety of objects and materials that are completely foreign to most people today. How can you tell what that thingamajig is made of? Is it bone or ivory or what? And how can you tell whether it is a genuine antique piece of scrimshaw made in the good old days of wooden ships and iron (albeit greasy) men, or is it modern, a fake, perhaps even manufactured from some kind of synthetic material untouched by human hands?

All genuine scrimshaw was made with some kind of organic material. Sailors had access to a variety of materials in their travels, prosaic to them but now alluringly exotic in our eyes. While most 18th and 19th Century scrimshaw was fashioned with whale’s teeth, baleen or whale bone, sailors also used walrus and occasionally elephant tusks, narwhal tusks, wild boar and hippo tusks, tortoise shell and dermal bones, sea shells, shark skin, fish bills , coconut shells, ostrich eggs, and various tropic woods. Many of these are immediately obvious and easy to identify, but others can pose a mystery to someone just starting their exploration.

            True ivory is very rare in nature, actually found today only in elephant tusks, and formerly in the paleolithic mastodon and mammoth tusks. Walrus tusks are very similar, and whale’s teeth (as well as narwhal, boar and hippo tusks) look very similar and are commonly called ivory, but are actually just teeth, sharing the same growth derivation and related structure to all other mammalian teeth.  Then there is bone, often looking so much like ivory when it is used for handles, inlay or small carvings. All these materials were once living and growing, arising from a cellular structure rather than a polymer laboratory. Like all organic matter these objects are distinctive from everything else on earth, and when examined will reveal clues to their identity. It’s just a matter of knowing what to look for… with the help of a 30X magnifying lens. Sounds simple, don’t it?

Unlike smooth ivory, all bone has a grain of dark speckles or flecks arranged in interrupted striations. Where a tooth is only alive in its root, all of a bone is living connective tissue and so is permeated with blood vessels running through it. In an old piece of bone these vessels have dried out and leave a distinctive grain darkened by dried organic materials and usually visible to the naked eye. If you look at bone through a good magnifying lens you’ll find those stained striations as well as a series of pockmarking canals and tiny cavities. Os identificatious! Whale bone was very highly vascularized compared for instance to cow bone (maybe that’s why Elsie never took to diving after giant squid), and so whale bone has a busier, darker more noticeable grain that cow bone. The grain is stronger in the softer porous bones like           ribs, and can be so faint in the denser bones like the panbone (the huge broad base of the jawbone) to be often confused with ivory.

            Elephant ivory is quite distinct. The tusks are made of a dentin, a matrix of 30% collagen and 70% minerals; unlike teeth there is no surface enamel, but there is a thick coating of cementum “bark” which is usually worn off towards the tip. The tusk grows by concentric layers of calcified dentin, producing a characteristic cross-hatch grain: picture a tic-tac-toe field made of alternating lighter and darker squares repeating on and on. While the faint and subtle surface striations can easily be lost in the patina or hidden by carving, the end grain is quite distinctive.

Elephant ivory was considered the best quality ivory and highly prized by carvers and craftsmen in both Europe and Asia. Sailors on trade routes to Africa and Asia would no doubt have occasionally run into elephant tusks, but realistically their access to this material would have been pretty limited. Today you will find a lot of antique utensils, boxes and carvings made from this ivory by professional artisans over the centuries, but when you examine a piece of purported sailor’s folk art and find it was made from elephant tusk you should be very, very suspicious. In theory it could be genuine but you should tread carefully.

            Walrus ivory is also extremely distinct. The tusks are actually derived from the upper canine teeth and are composed of a central core of highly mineralized osteodentin or secondary dentin which looks like marble or oatmeal, an outer layer of primary dentin, a dense and smooth layer of cementum, and a surface layer of enamel (which may be worn off to a greater or lesser extent). Walrus tusk cementum is prone to develop longitudinal cracks which will continue down into the dentin. While the surface is smooth and dense (it has even less grain than elephant), that wild granular core reminiscent of marble… if the marble was made of rock hard tapioca (kind of like how momma used to make) is diagnostic. Since the primary dentine is relatively thin on the tusk, articles made of walrus ivory seem to always have the marbled core visible somewhere on the piece, along with those longitudinal cracks. Seek and ye shall find.

The history of the whale fishery saw followed the hunt to ever more remote seas, so that by the Civil War whalers had largely shifted their efforts from the Southern Oceans to Arctic. While chasing the bowhead whale for its oil and massive baleen, and they also took a great number of walrus tusks and seal pelts. As a result walrus ivory is seen not only in Eskimo handicraft, but also in many pieces of antique sailor’s work.

In part three we will look at whale ivory and other materials.

Summer Writing Contest with an Antiques Twist!

The Antiques Depot is encouraging young people to explore the world of rare and special antique objects. Youngsters and teens are invited to enter the Depot’s first “Antique Short Story Contest” by writing a fictional biography of an object they find in the shop (no purchase necessary). Contestants come in and explore the wide variety of treasures from our past on display and find that one piece that sparks their imagination! After asking questions about the object’s identity and history to get started, they can have fun if they wish researching and exploring their chosen piece at the library and the many island museums, and then put their newfound knowledge and imagination to work by writing a story about their object.

The young author can write a fictional “biography” that follows their object through the various imagined hands that have owned it over the years since it was made; perhaps exploring some of the ways it had been used. The author may choose to write an exciting story that takes place sometime in the past, where the chosen object plays an important role. All of the authors are encouraged to think of their object as a real character in their story and address when it was made, where it was from, what was its purpose, what was its life like, what did it witness? The contest is an opportunity to learn about our culture and get a better feel for Nantucket’s past, all while having fun with a creative project. The Antiques Depot is hoping the young authors will discover that exploring antiques will inspire a lasting appreciation of history and heritage.

The story writing contest is open to all young people, and the contestants will be divided into a group aged 12 and under, and a group aged 13 to 18. The stories will be judged on the accuracy of information related, creativity and of course writing skill. The stories must be submitted by August 15th. The winner in each group will receive an antique handcrafted Ship-in-a-Bottle.

The Antiques Depot is also fostering new collectors of all ages during the month of July with other special deals and events as well. Every Tuesday afternoon is Free Evaluation Day, where people are invited to bring in their mystery object to discuss their history and value, or to just stop by with the antiques questions they have always wanted to ask. Young Collector Specials throughout the shop have been marked down to be more accessible to those just starting to explore the world of antiques. Items priced at $150 or less have been marked with ribbons to be easier to find, and anyone 25 or younger may ask for a further 20% discount.

Much Ado About Scrimshaw.

Scrimshaw has caught headlines in the last couple of years, and people coming through our shop are often bursting with questions about this old art. They have heard in the news about people getting arrested, reports of smuggling, people going to jail. They want to know exactly what is scrimshaw? Was it done in America? How can you tell a genuine antique piece from an imposter? For that matter how can you be sure of the material: is it ivory, bone or fake? Above all everyone wants to know about the laws. Is it still legal to buy and sell scrimshaw?  Is it ethical to collect?


An assortment of choice 19th Century Scrimshaw.

Scrimshaw is one of the great classic antiques of New England, as indigenous and evocative as  Elmer Crowell decoys, Townsend furniture, the crafts from Canterbury, Sabbathday Lake and other early Shaker communities, and the folk art and primitives from across the Northern states. Much in the same way that Moby Dick is one of the greatest American novels and one of our signature contributions to world literature, scrimshaw itself is regarded as a quintessential American tradition among the great folk art of the world.

A collection of antique Jagging Wheels

The history of scrimshaw is bit foggy. The word itself comes from Scandinavia and means… eh, we’re not really sure. The definition seems to have been lost in the scuppers long, long ago. There are a few theories kicking about, but the consensus leans towards a meaning akin to killing time or horsing around. The idea is that when it came to sailors, their idle hands got up to something no more devilish than whittling, or more precisely in this case, scratching and engraving images on pieces of scrap ivory or bone.

There is of course an unbroken tradition of working with ivory and bone among many native peoples across North America and Eurasia. There have also been skilled ivory artisans in many European countries as far back as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Dieppe and Augsburg in particular, but also Scandinavia, Russia, Southern Germany and Italy. Nevertheless scrimshaw as we have come to know it today is overwhelmingly American. Scrimshaw is intimately tied to the historic culture and lore of the whalers under sail; the scrimshanders themselves and their art was unique and very different from what was seen with elephant ivory.

19th Century Dieppe carved pocket watch hutch.

So what exactly are we talking about here? To the purist Scrimshaw refers only to pieces of marine ivory or bone engraved by sailors on board ship. Some of the ultra-orthodox would further insist that only pieces crafted by American sailors qualify. Most serious collectors would insist that proper scrimshaw must be on a whale’s tooth, walrus tusk, baleen or piece of bone from a whale or some other marine mammal. Some collectors will make a distinction between proper scrimshaw and pieces that were carved rather than engraved. Most all collectors recognize a difference between scrimshaw and Napoleonic prisoner of war pieces made from soup bone.

I’m a bit more liberal. I don’t think a sailor onboard the Charles W Morgan back in the 1850s  would have made a distinction between the scratching he was doing on a sperm whale tooth and what he had done on a piece of horn or antler… or ostrich egg… or coconut shell… or even a handy piece of hard tropic wood. I think that same sailor would question your sanity if you suggested that his work was genuine, but not any work done by a whaler out of Cornwall or Brest. And I am sure that same sailor would want to shanghai a taste of whatever grog you were sipping if you tried to tell him the pieces he made while dockside or elsewhere ashore wasn’t real scrimshaw. We have to realize that every aspect of sailors’ lives, both ashore and at sea, and all they experience, manifests itself and breathes life into their folk art.

In part two we’ll look at how to identify a genuine piece of scrimshaw.