Folk Art From the Whalers

by: Brian Bushard

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

The gallery tells two stories: the gruesome, bloody one about hunting and dismembering sperm whales in the South Pacific for oil, and the less-dramatic one of sailors’ boredom on the three-year voyages they set out on from Nantucket Harbor. Out of that boredom came folk art.

The art was made on the very teeth of the 40and 50-foot sperm whales they killed, carved with intricate designs of whaleships, whale hunts and the loved ones they left behind.

A whale tooth engraved on board the whaling vessel Susan, August 22, 1829. The banner over the ship reads, "The Susan on her homeward bound pas- sage." The panel near the tip is a fouled anchor. The inscription below the anchor continues around the tooth and was engraved by F. Myrick.

“Scrimshaw is a quintessential American folk tradition,” Nantucket Historical Association executive director James Russell said about the Whaling Museum’s second-floor scrimshaw gallery.

They’re not the only pieces of scrimshaw in the world. The art of carving and staining a tooth started in England, before being picked up by American sailors. But the art form has come to be identified with American, and more particularly Nantucket, whalemen.

One of the first known American examples was made by Edward Burdett, a sailor out of Nantucket whose voyage took him to the Pacific in the mid-1820s.

He carved the tooth of the whale he helped kill only a few months before he himself was caught in a harpoon line on a hunt and dragged overboard to his death.

“Scrimshaw is a quintessential American folk tradition.” – Nantucket Historical Association Gosnell Executive Director James Russell
NHA curator Dan Elias called Burdett’s carving and the scrimshaw around it some of the most popular pieces of the art in the world. Almost all of the pieces in the museum’s collection have ties to the island.

“Nantucket has an amazing connection to its scrimshaw,” Elias said. “It has the provenance, the knowledge of which ship and which voyage the tooth was made on. Other collections have scrimshaw from all over the world. We have three teeth from the whale that rammed the Ann Alexander (a ship from New Bedford that sank in 1851, whose crew was rescued by a Nantucket ship). We can tie it into this place, into these cobblestones.”

Next to that tooth are others engraved with American flags, whales, whaleboats and several of the women waiting for the whalers’ return to the island. Then there are the decorative utensils like pie crimpers, the lampshades and corsets they would take home for their wives.

Along the wall of the museum is something more peculiar: a four-foot-long spiraled narwhal tusk, an example of the curious things whalers would sometimes find on their voyages into the stranger, colder northern waters of the Pacific.

The collection has about 1,400 items in total.

“It grew up out of idle times on whaleships and these teeth, these bones – things that weren’t the purpose of the voyage that were made by guys with not much to do – it flowered and became a quintessential part of folk art and offers a great window into the world at that time,” Russell said.

The NHA started placing more focus on its collection of scrimshaw last year, when it commissioned New Bedford Whaling Museum curator Stuart Frank to write a comprehensive hardcover book on the art form, called “Scrimshaw on Nantucket.”

That book now sits on a stand at the front of the gallery.

Russell calls scrimshaw one of the most desirable forms of folk art in the country, and something the NHA wants to highlight.

“(Scrimshaw) tells us a lot about the life and times of the whaler,” he said. “When I think of scrimshanding on a vessel miles out to sea with nothing but a jackknife and a bit of bone, it proves the essential need for humans to express themselves in a visual way. Also, considering the young men who etched

and carved, with no formal art training, it is arguably the first maritime folk art. The collection is important not so much because of its size, which is one of the largest in the U.S., but because of the quality and range of the objects.” ///

Brian Bushard is a reporter for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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