Much Ado About Scrimshaw. Part Three: Whale’s Teeth and More Materials.

We began in the last blog to take a close look at elephant and walrus ivory. We discussed its characteristics and pointed out its distinguishing features. But that’s just a start. What about whale ivory? Are there other types of ivory as well? How can you tell all these apart from one another? And what about fake ivory?

Most all scrimshaw collectors are especially looking for antique pieces fashioned from Whale Ivory. This is actually the teeth from sperm (or occasionally killer) whales, which grow like all other mammal’s teeth by the laying of concentric strata of dentin beneath the rough cementum seen in unpolished teeth, and a layer of enamel towards the tip. The growth pattern produces a wavy wood-like grain (which can be faint or difficult to see on the surface). The teeth also have relatively deep conical root cavities which often have polyp growths on the surface. Lacking the wonders of modern cosmetic dentistry, whale’s teeth may develop a patina ranging from a light buttercream (why do you think they call that color ivory anyways?) to a fairly deep golden brown (think amber honey rather than a smoker’s smile), and can easily stain from contact with various substances.

The other tusks sometimes used in scrimshaw are much more rarely seen, and are usually identified by their shape and size. A Narwhal Tusk for example is actually formed by a fusion of the two upper incisors on males growing in a spiral. They are prized for their unique helical form. Sailors and craftsmen almost always left these tusks in their natural form and either displayed them whole (typically between five and ten feet long) or used lengths of them for walking stick shafts (or rarely other small objects or applique). The form is the key to identification here.

Wild Boar and Warthog Tusks are the huge protruding canine teeth from these wild pigs formerly ranging through much of Europe, Asia and Africa. They can grow up to seven inches or so long, have a wickedly sabre tooth tiger-ish shape, made even more dramatic by the natural fluting that runs along their length. Their most desirable feature to a craftsman was this wild shape, so once again they were usually left intact and typically used for handles on canes, corkscrews or tools. One might be lucky enough to chance upon a piece made with the much scarcer Tiger’s Teeth, having a similar curved and fluted shape but much smaller and usually having a patina more like a whale’s tooth.

Lastly and most scarce of all there are Hippo Tusks, actually the incisor and canine teeth which grown with tightly packed concentric dentin layers around a central interstitial zone, a thin layer of cementum and a broad band of enamel. They are long (up to ten inches or so), steadily curved as a segment from the arc of a circle, and creamy colored with a very fine, barely discernible grain. These teeth were rarely used because they are incredibly hard, said to be able to strike sparks from steel. When used at all they were almost always left whole, typically as supports for a Victorian dinner gong or handles.

Be aware that these tusks are still legally sold and can be easily worked with modern tools: in fact after elephant tusks they were the most commonly used ivory in the 20th century for producing buttons, handles, inlay and a variety of small applications. If you find objects made with carved or engraved hippo tusks you can be fairly confident (but not positive) that they are not antique.

As if all this wasn’t confusing enough… then there are the synthetics. Clever people have found ways of making synthetic ivory since back in the reign of Victoria Regina. The earliest was no doubt so-called Vegetable Ivory, Tagua and other certain palm nuts whose seeds are the size and shape of hen’s eggs, very hard and solid, and look very much like a smooth, grainless, darkly patinated ivory. Tagua nuts could be polished, carved, engraved, dyed and used like ivory in fashioning a variety of small objects.

Various nitro-cellulose inventions from the 1840s through 1860s culminated in Celluloid, the first proper plastic polymer. This material was moldable, workable and resilient, and quickly became popular for cutlery handles, dresser sets, boxes and more. Celluloid was marketed as French Ivory or other suggestive names, and was often made with a perfect faux elephant ivory grain. After World War II there was an explosion of various polymers, a plastic revolution, and synthetic ivories were variously made with combinations of chemical resins with organic resins, casein (a milk protein of all things), or additions of actual bone or ivory sawdust.

Since the 1970s there has been a proliferation of plastic reproduction scrimshaw made by Artek, Jurotone and a number of other companies. These are not just made of imitation ivory, they are cast in the actual form of whale’s teeth, walrus tusks, panbones or other objects. They are decorated with great scrimshaw inspired images, often copies of some of the greatest examples known in museums. What’s a new collector to do? How can you tell a genuine piece of scrimshaw from these machine-made copies? And most important of all, how can you tell a genuine antique piece of scrimshaw from a later copy or a modern piece of work? Stay tuned…

And the winner is…


The Antiques Depot hosted a children’s writing contest this summer to encourage young people to explore the world of rare and special antique objects. Youngsters and teens were invited to explore the wide variety of treasures from our past on display at the shop and find that one piece that sparked their imagination.  After asking questions about the object’s identity and history to get started, they could pursue more research at the library or any of the many island museums, and then put their new found knowledge and imagination to work by writing a story about their object. They were asked to write a fictional biography of the piece they found in the shop, or write a tale in which the object they chose played a central role.

Children of a variety of ages were excited by the contest.  Some were brought in by their parents. In other cases the parents were clearly the ones being dragged in by their eager children.  One morning we had the entire Murray Camp descend en masse. It was fascinating to watch what pieces caught their imagination.  We even had to break out our step ladder so that one young girl, small in stature but big in imagination, could get up close to examine a miniature Sterling ship model perched on a high shelf.

An intriguing assortment of objects was chosen: often a surprise, always very cool, and by no means divisible into what one might naively expect to be little boy versus little girl interests.  Many fascinating questions were asked. In one case one young girl asked a slow series of questions, spread over quite a period of time as they occurred to her, so you could follow her train of thought as her story was slowly taking shape in her imagination. Sometimes the questions would catch me completely by surprise, amazed that anyone would think of asking such a curious question. The final stories that were submitted were treasures from start to finish.

The story chosen for first place was entitled Generations of Reading by Ava McDonald. The 11 year old author received a prize of a vintage Ship in a Bottle in congratulation for her clever and delightful story.  And you, the lucky reader of this blog will also receive a prize: the opportunity to read that winning story right now. In future blogs we will present a further selection of our favorite stories submitted.

Generations of Reading

by Ava McDonald

The scorching sun shined down on the field of juicy, red strawberries. It is August 15, 1920 on Nantucket, the island where I live. My name is Elizabeth, but my mother and father call me Lizzie, and I am 12 years old. I am outside picking strawberries in the field. My parents grow them on their farm, and I pick and sell them to the wealthier families who come on island every summer. I pick the luscious red fruits, and I put them in a basket that was hand-woven by my grandmother.

When I finish, I bring my basket inside our small cottage on the farm, place it on the kitchen table, and go to get myself a cold rag. Nantucket is really hot in the summer. I place the rag around my sunburnt neck. It feels so cold and soothing to my irritated skin. Then I take some time to relax and read. I love to read and have always loved books. Right now, I am almost done reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I love it. I pick up the book, open it up to where I left off and start reading. When I finish the last page, I close the book, put it down, pick up my strawberries and bring them to the sink to wash them. Then I bring the strawberries to my mother who is in her bedroom.

“Hello, Lizzie!” my mother says in delight. “Hello, Mother!” I say. I run to hug her, but I’m careful not to spill the berries I have gathered. “I am going to the wharf to sell my strawberries!” I say. “Okay, be back at three,” my mother says, which means I have two hours to sell all of my strawberries. I kiss my mother goodbye, grab my basket and head out the door.

I grab my bike out of the shed and start riding. The bike ride to the wharf is a long one, but I’m used to it. I do this ride about five times a week, because I have to sell my strawberries. The ride takes me about thirty minutes, because the island is never busy until the ferry arrives. Once the wealthy families come into town, we farmers keep to ourselves. You wouldn’t believe how many families come over the summer.

I arrive at the wharf at about 1:30 PM, and the ferry has just arrived. Not many families want to buy my strawberries but then a nice, older woman comes up to me. She wants to buy lots of strawberries from me! She buys 10 strawberries and I am excited! She hands me five dollars! Five dollars! I thank the old woman and hand her the strawberries. I can’t wait to spend my money on a new book to read!

It is now 2:30 PM and most of the arriving families have left, so I decide to walk into town and spend my earned money at my favorite store on the island, Daniel’s Bookstore.

“Hello there, Elizabeth!” Daniel says to me. “Hi!” I reply. “I’m looking for a new book. I just finished The Secret Garden.” “How about this one?” he says and hands me a copy of Moby Dick. “It was written in 1851 and this is one of the first illustrated copies of this timeless novel! The illustrated copy was just released earlier this month.” He hands me the book and I admire the beautiful blue and gold cover, as Daniel keeps telling me about the book. “The book has a chapter called Nantucket, and it describes our beautiful island so well, and the author, Herman Melville, had never even been on island before!” Daniel says. “Wow! This seems like a great novel! I can’t believe I haven’t read this before but now is the perfect time!” I say. Daniel nods his head in agreement. “How much for it?” I ask. “Two dollars,” Daniel says. I squeeze the money I have just earned in my hand and say, “I’ll take it!”

I hand Daniel the money as he hands me the book. I walk out of the store, and walk back to the wharf to get my bike. I ride back to the farm, throw my bike in the shed, and run inside to get started on my beautiful new book.

Call me, Ishmael I begin to read. I read through the book, and I look at its beautiful illustrations. I finally reach the chapter Daniel told me about called Nantucket:

 Nothing more happened on the passage worthy the mentioning; so, after a fine run, we safely arrived in Nantucket. Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it – a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper…


            My name is Elizabeth, but my nine year old daughter, Marie, calls me Mother. I am 32 years old, and I live on Nantucket where I have lived since I was a girl. I work at Daniel’s Bookstore. I have worked there since Daniel’s death five years ago. I have always loved to read, and so does my daughter, Marie. My most treasured book is the illustrated copy of Moby Dick, a book I bought from Daniel 20 years ago with $2 I earned from selling strawberries. The beautiful blue and gold cover looks a bit worn and dusty now but, in my eyes, it is still as beautiful as it was the day I bought it.

Marie and I went to pick strawberries today and, as we put our berries into the beautiful hand-woven basket that my grandmother gave me several years before she died, I realized that today was the perfect day to give her one of my most prized possessions. After we returned home, I called her into the parlor and pulled out the box where I have always kept my special illustrated copy of Moby Dick.

“Marie, dear? I want to give you something,” I say. I open the box, which is sitting in my lap. Marie looks inside and gasps with delight as I hand her this special piece of history. “This is my illustrated copy of Moby Dick, which I bought twenty years ago from Daniel when he was still alive. It is one of the first illustrated copies of Moby Dick ever published,” I say. She thanks me and hugs me with glee. A tear of joy begins to run down my cheek as I watch her take the book into her hands and admire the beautiful blue and gold beautiful cover just as I did 20 years ago.

Congratulations Ava from Jack, Howard and Ciara.