Scrimshaw: As History and Currency of a Bygone Era
The art of Scrimshaw is an art of idle hands. Scrimshaw, as we know it today dates back to the early part of the nineteenth century. Sailors on long idle whaling expeditions would use the leavings of the hunt to create art. Whaling required many more crew than was actually needed to man the ship, as the animal required many men to finish the kill once it was injured and also many to ground it, bring it on board or on shore and hundreds sometimes to quickly finish the butchering and harvest. (Paszkiewicz 1)
Whaling was even seen as a punishment for young evil doers and in that way
Scrimshaw could be compared at least somewhat to prison art, probably its closest folk art neighbor. "Whaling, after all, was better than most systems of peonage that flourish to-day, for it released its victims after a single voyage."
Morison 324) Longer terms were reserved for native seaman and career fisherman. "Rarely, if a green hand made good with the skipper, he could be able seaman or boat-steerer (harpooner) on his second voyage; but the good 'short lays' were generally reserved for native Nantucketers, New Bedfordites, and Gay Head Indians."
Morison 324) Yet, the results of such voyages in the life of a gad about would have been profound and their hours were destined to be recorded, through their own hands.
Compensations there were, even in a whaleman's life. If his vessel ran into several 'pods' of whales in succession, he was worked until he dropped, and then kicked to his feet; but ordinarily he had plenty of leisure to play cards and smoke, and to carve sperm whales' teeth into marvelous 'scrimshaw work' and 'jagging wheels.' (Morison 324-325)
In the idle hours, that were many, sailors recorded history, the history of their own thoughts and preoccupations and also the history of occurrences around them. Scrimshaw art tells a story of an era, sends messages of history even now and in its original form is highly prized.
The word Scrimshaw itself has a mysterious origin yet it can be surmised that it was born of the nature of the craft to fill idle moments aboard ship: "What is the origin of the word Scrimshaw? The very comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary, which almost always has the last word in etymology, indicates that the origin of the word is obscure although it may have been influenced by an older word scrimshank which means to shirk or ignore one's duties" (Paszkiewicz 1)
The whale was desired mainly for its blubber, used to make lamp oil and its baleen, the plastic of the 19th century, used to make products like corset boning and fishing rods. (Paszkiewicz 1) Mostly made from the teeth end bone of the whale, the non-desirable portions of the kill, scrimshaw is carving away lines and then darkening them with to create a contrasting picture. Some sailors became very proficient and were able to create very detailed representations of their subjects, often nautical themes, but also patriotic themes, portraits of women and sometimes even erotic art. These sailors faced countless dangers and could sometimes be gone for as long as five years, the need to recall home, fill idle hours and even create gifts and expressions of love for those back home, or even fulfill erotic desires through the mind, filled the idle hours with the development of this sensational folk art. (Paszkiewicz 2) "Engraved scrimshaw for the whaler usually meant the tooth of the sperm whale, yet whale bone, walrus tusks, porpus jaws and even baleen were all carved to create intricate fans, jewelry, cane heads, knitting and embroidery items, and pieces for inlay work." (Paszkiewicz 2)
Elephant ivory was also used in other areas of the world for artistic expressions similar to Scrimshaw, until the elephant population had dwindled to near extinction but when plastic became prominent and less expensive, and petroleum was discovered to replace whale blubber the whaling industry came to a standstill, at the turn of the 20th century, and this art form would nearly be lost, not to be revived in interest at least until the 1960s. (Paszkiewicz 2)
Though there always seems to have been a regard for folk art, or art for the masses by the masses, it has not always been given its due praise. Yet, even Herman Melville, with his great love for the visual arts speaks of Scrimshaw and its liveliness and reality:
In Paint; In Teeth; In Wood; In SheetIron; In Stone; In Mountains; In Stars."... Melville argues here for a theory of primitivism in art according to which the artist who is closest to Nature is the one whose work is most likely to be true.
Melville speaks of the need for fine arts to emulate primitive art in order to be true to nature and later scholars interpret Melville's words as a call for spirit and feeling as well as responsible representation in fine art.
This is not to say that Melville was calling for a populist or primitive art, such as one might find only in the anonymous makers of scrimshaw whales and corset stays, but that he was insisting on a sense of immediacy and honesty in the creation of any work of art -- a feeling of liveliness, or of something beyond what the eye can see, as well as accuracy of representation. (Sten 11-12)
Here Melville and his later interpreters express one of the must fundamental problems and also fascinations with this form of folk art, as well as many others. Anonymity of the artists not only shrouds the art in mystery and vividness it also leaves little real association for the history of individual artifacts.
Yet, regardless of the mostly anonymous nature of the form it has told countless and priceless stories of its place within the context of the bygone era. "What was required was a 'barbaric spirit and suggestiveness' such as Ishmael says he found in the Hawaiian savage who can be seen patiently fashioning a warclub, or in 'the prints of that fine old German savage, Albert Dure' (232). 10" (Sten 11-12)
Melville and others can call upon this art form as an example of a romantic ideal. The barbaric nature of the whaling industry and the rowdy and salty ideal of the whaler, are all called into the light here. With or without the reality the ideal has left a legacy of storytelling and representation in bone. To Melville and other art critics the importance of feeling and spirit in art is what gives it the ability to triumph over the human soul and honestly speak the words and feelings of the artists.
Getting back to the art itself, and it relationship to reality, and nature. The anonymity of scrimshaw folk art gives it a rare position in art history and as a teller of historic accuracy. The individuals who created it had stories of valor and bravery to tell and representation of personal sacrifice, lacking in the official political drive so much of the historical fine art of this era and those before it. Scrimshaw art told the story of the life of an anonymous sailor and of the bygone industry itself. It can therefore be sited as a source for information, right up there with the official documentation of the ship's log and the captains journal. Yet, truly this aspect of Scrimshaw art has yet to be tapped as a valuable historical resource and the use of Scrimshaw art for the most part is to demonstrate specifically the life of the sailor. A set of historic facts that could have otherwise been lost in a time when few of the people involved might have been literate, and able to record their lives through the written word.
In a treasure of a biography about a prominent Civil War Soldier, the chronicles of his life include a very well documented account of a long whaling trip, scrimshaw was said to be one of the most common pastimes of the sailors onboard.
The island of Mas-a-fuera, swarming with seals, came in sight on the morning of February 2, and within hours a boat crew had struck and killed a sperm whale. The following afternoon, the boat towed its prize to the ship, and cutting-in began.
Here the author describes the process of cutting-in. Leaving much to the imagination Amos Humiston, the famous Civil War soldier recorded the life of a whaler through his own words and also through the logs and journals of his ship, the whale ship Harrison.
There were extra steps to be taken in cutting-in a sperm whale, Amos learned, most of them involving the severed head. Hoisted halfway on deck, it was cut into three parts: the lower jaw, the junk, and the case. The jaw had no commercial value, but provided the bone and teeth that the whalemen used to make scrimshaw.