Palmetto Tree Scrimshaw on antique Ivory Piano Keys by Karen Langley
Scrimshaw, the practice of whalers creating art from by-products of whales is the only art form created in America. Whale bone and teeth were ideally suited for the task, as it is easy to work and was plentiful.
The widespread carving of scrimshaw became possible after the 1815 publication of the Journal of U.S. Navy Captain David Porter exposed both the market and the source of the whale teeth, causing a surplus of whale teeth that greatly diminished their value and made them available as a material for ordinary seamen. Around this time is the earliest authenticated pictorial piece of sperm whale scrimshaw (1817). The tooth was inscribed: "This is the tooth of a sperm whale that was caught near the Galapagos islands by the crew of the ship Adam [of London], and made 100 barrels of oil in the year 1817."
Other sea animal ivories were also used as alternatives for rarer whale teeth. Walrus tusks were acquired in trade from indigenous walrus hunters.
Scrimshaw was a leisure activity for whalers as they had a great deal more free time than other sailors. A lot of scrimshaw was never signed and a great many of the pieces are anonymous. Early scrimshaw was done with crude sailing needles and candle black, soot, ink, or tobacco juice was used to bring the etched design into view. Today's artists use finer tools in various sizes, mostly borrowed from the dental industry.
Originating in an era when sperm whales were initially plentiful only to be hunted to near collapse, scrimshaw no longer is an art form utilizing an easily renewable animal resource, but one that is susceptible to contraband. Now, the Endangered Species Act and international conventions restrict the harvest and sale of ivory to try to reverse the scarcity of ivory-bearing animals.
SWAMP LOG Artisans use only legal sources of ivory such as antique ivory keys.