Published 5th June 2013
When Herman Melville (1819-1891) wrote Moby Dick (1851), he produced not only one of the greatest works of literature, but also an important historical record of the Nantucket whaling industry in the 19th century. Included within one of Ishmael’s narratives is a reference to the art of scrimshaw or ‘scrimshander’ that is as popular today, as it was at the time of Melville’s writing.
A 19th century scrimshaw decorated tooth with Britannia decoration (MA13/227)
The design and decoration varies a great deal depending upon the age of the piece and of course the skill of the artist. Simple ship portraits and whaling scenes are the most common to be found for a few hundred pounds at auction, the value increasing with better detail and naming of known ships. Of course being at sea for months at a time inevitably led to more erotic scenes being produced (some even dispelling the myth that the Victorian’s were prudish!) and these can make up to several thousand pounds in a Maritime sale.