Scrimshaw, as we know it now, was born during the age
of whaling during the 18th century when the whalers had an abundance of ivory
teeth taken from the sperm whale, which they hunted for its oil.
The whalers had an abundance of time onboard ship and out of it developed an
art form in which a jack knife, sharpened nail, or canvas needle was used to
scratch a design on the polished surface of a whales ivory tooth. The most
common subject matters included ships, whaling scenes and the girl back home.
The white scratched design was rubbed with lamp black squid ink (sepia) or
India ink. The ink was then wiped off and only the scratches held the ink,
which greatly contrasted the white, polished ivory.
From the primitive beginnings, scrimshaw has progressed into a fine art form
with colored inks and oil paint. Using magnifiers and small sewing needles
bring the possibility of photographic quality work.
When the American whaling fleet entered the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska
the late 1800s, the whalers traded with the Eskimos for ivory. Many sailors
returned home with ivory walrus tusks and carvings. For centuries, the Eskimos
had etched (scrimshawed) decorative designs on their ivory and bone
implements, mostly geometric patterns, but also animals, hunting records and
memorable exploits in primitive stick figure or pictograph style. With the
arrival of the whalers, the Eskimos began to scrimshaw in a more realistic
style and they continue their ancient art tradition in this style to this day.
Scrimshaw has been extended from not only on ivory but also on several other
canvases such as bone, antler, elk ivory (teeth), alternative ivory and
miocarda (plastic palmers that resembles ivory).