Artifact Spotlight–Whale Bone

Whale Bone Scrimshaw

This original artifact is a unique example of writing on a whale bone.  It was created in 1881 and depicts a sperm whale.



Scrimshaw is a word from the Dutch-English nautical slang that means ‘to waste time.’   The word was first used around 1825 and was generally used for years after that.  It was often used in relation to sailors on whaling trips.  These trips would last for years, and sometimes months would pass in between whale sightings.  After finishing up their duties, sailors would often pass their time scrimshonting, wasting time, or creating scrimshaws.

At the time, raw whale bones and teeth were not considered valuable, so pieces would often be given free to sailors.  Some sailors would carve pictures into the bone, and others would create hairpins, jewelry, or corset clasps.

Scrimshaw has been described as America’s only original art, but recent archeological digs have found similar items from over 6,000 years ago which may have come from the Inuit and other indigenous people (Hopper).  However, the art was most popular among American sailors in the 19th century.

Our Scrimshaw:

Special Collection’s scrimshaw likely came from a sperm whale as the etching illustrates one. The etching demonstrates how to break down a whale. The inscription tells us this scrimshaw was created onboard the Brig Steel Warrior from Newport, RI, 1881.


Hopper, Roger. “The History of Scrimshaw.” Web. 11 Nov. 2016.

“scrimshaw, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 11 November 2016.

“The American Neptune: A Quarterly Journal of Maritime History and Arts.” Peabody Essex Museum. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.


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