Folk Art From the Whalers -Spring 2020

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

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