Scrimshaw, The Whalemen’s Art

Stuart Frank, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Tuesday, April 14, 2009Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum

Scrimshaw is the indigenous shipboard occupational art of whalers, utilizing the hard byproducts of whaling—-waste byproducts that had little or no commercial value. Dr. Frank’s lecture will provide more than a hundred glimpses at the very wide and compelling variety of productions made by whalemen at sea in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The scrimshaw genre originated just after the Napoleonic Wars, circa 1817–20, when voyages to distant whaling grounds were getting longer (typically three or four years) and leisure for the crew between whale sitings became more plentiful, with an overabundance of time to fill. Scrimshaw was an ideal pastime for many, who produced utilitarian objects, ornaments, artworks and souvenirs as gifts for the folks back home. From a mere handful of pioneer practitioners aboard whaleships in the 1820s, scrimshaw-making —scrimshandering—- blossomed into a near-universal pursuit of American, British and other whalers in the 1830s and ’40s, persisting until the collapse of the classic hand-whaling industry in the first decades of the 20th century.

Sperm whale oil was the principal objective of hunting whales in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. But sperm whale teeth, apart from their considerable value as barter commodities for South Pacific islanders, had no commercial value, and once the extraction and processing of the oil was completed they were customarily distributed to whaling crews for their own handiwork. Sperm whale jawbone (panbone) was a plentiful and eminently workable medium that also had no market relevance but was highly prized for making larger objects (such as pictorial plaques) and objects requiring strength and durability (tools, tool handles, walking sticks).

Baleen—-the keratin food-strainer plates in the mouths of mysticete whales (in place of teeth) had been used commer- cially since the Middle Ages for stays in so-called “whalebone” corsets, collar stays, skirt hoops, umbrella ribs, carriage springs and other items. But the baleen market was ever subject to dramatic fluctuations in fashion, while scraps and surpluses were many; so baleen was usually available to whalemen for making corset busks, inlay and ditty boxes.

Walrus ivory’s economic importance was trivial. Walruses were occasionally taken for the oil and the tusks sold for ivory on the San Francisco market, but the walrus ivory used in scrimshaw was typically obtained by individual sailors bartering with native peoples in the Far North, notably the Inupiaq, Yupik and Yup’ik Eskimos of Alaska. Any and all of these materials were frequently combined with other “found” items: various woods, sea shell, tortoise shell, bits of metal and cloth, and so on—-in an endless array of shipboard folk-art creations by amateur hands.

The most recognizable and definitive manifestation of whalemen’s scrimshaw are sperm whale teeth engraved with pictures and (sometimes) inscriptions—-images of ships, whaling scenes, naval engagements, portraiture, theatrical and biblical subjects, animals, architecture, landscapes, and all manner of things, many of them entirely fresh and original, others copied or traced from illustrations in books and magazines. Walrus tusks, panbone panels and corset busks fashioned from baleen or panbone were often similarly decorated. Handtools (fids, seam rubbers, serving mallets) and tool handles were often made out of skeletal bone by whalemen for their own use. Walking sticks were ubiquitous gifts for fathers and uncles back home. Kitchen implements included pie crimpers with fluted jagging wheels, cutlery boxes, spreaders, rolling pins and butter molds. Scrimshaw sewing gear—-bodkins, needle cases, tatting shuttles, knitting needles, shuttles—-could be stored in hinged boxes made of wood with elaborate inlay of ivory, bone, mother of pearl and tortoise shell. Lap secretaries, sewing boxes, sewing baskets and jewelry—-crosses, bracelet charms and ivory pendants—-were legion. Perhaps the grandest, most elaborate and most labor-intensive scrimshaw product was the swift—-an adjustable, rotating yarn winder for converting skeins of yarn to balls for knitting, hooking and embroidery.

Scrimshaw was uniquely rooted in the whalemen’s occupation, and endemic to the lives of whalemen, and captains’ wives and children who occasionally accompanied the paterfamilias at sea. Scrimshaw therefore provides a rewarding, multi-faceted window into the distinctive features of the whaling trade in particular and shipboard life in general, and into the mainstream trends in the arts, fashion and popular culture of which the sailors’ life and their scrimshaw art were inextricably part.

Stuart Frank’s academic voyage began with a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan. He launched his post-graduate education with master’s degrees from Yale and Brown. His doctorate is from Brown, where his dissertation was Ballads and Songs of the Whale-Hunters, 1825–1895.

Dr. Frank was executive director and chief curator of the Kendall Whaling Museum in Sharon, Massachusetts, for 20 years. In 2001, when Kendall merged with the New Bedford Whaling Museum, he became its senior curator.

Dr. Frank is founder and director of the world’s only Scrimshaw Forensics Laboratory, director emeritus of the Kendall Institute, editorial board member of The American Neptune and the International Journal of Maritime History, artist-in-residence and scholar-in-residence at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, research associate at Mystic Seaport Museum, president of the Council of American Maritime Museums, executive councilor of the International Congress of Maritime Museums and consultant to museums in North America, Europe, Australia and Japan. He has consulted and appeared on camera in more than a dozen television and film documentaries. He founded the sea music interpretation program and annual Sea Music Festival at Mystic Seaport. He has performed lecture-concerts, concerts and recorded historic sea music with his wife, Mary Malloy.

Dr. Frank has taught maritime subjects at the Williams College program in Maritime Studies and the Munson Institute at Mystic Seaport, the Sea Education Association at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Brown, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Roger Williams University. His extensive speaking engagements and more than 60 publication (including The Magazine Antiques) cover the range of maritime art, history, literature and music. His books are Herman Melville’s Picture Gallery, the Dictionary of Scrimshaw Artists, More Scrimshaw Artists and Book of Pirate Songs. Current works in progress are a book about Japanese prints, an expanded edition of the Book of Pirate Songs and two books about scrimshaw.

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Set sail with scrimshaw and nautical objects. Bring nautical scenes, ships’ portraits and ships’ models.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.