The Scrimshaw Connection

The folk art form today known as «scrimshaw» originated in Inuit and other Native American communities along the Northwest Pacific coast before being adopted by seamen and in particular American whalers, possibly as early as the 17th century.

The etymology of the word scrimshaw remains somewhat obscure. In their 1897 Dictionary of Slang, Barrière and Leland offer the definition of «any object produced by hand as a pastime». This is corroborated by another source, which maintains that the term is of Dutch origin and means «to pass the time».

These engraved ivory and bone objects seamen made in their spare time were generally gifts to bring home for their wives and girl friends. Whalers in particular had a lot of time on their hands between catches and given that whaling was too dangerous to be performed after dark. And when whaling ships ventured farther and farther from the coast their expeditions often lasted several years before returning to port.

This is how scrimshaw became a very popular way of escaping boredom while providing occasion for creativity. Sperm whale bones and teeth or walrus tusks were easy to work with and plentiful. Their surface became the ideal place to transcribe scenes of daily life, dreams, the heart’s yearning and personal beliefs, and what has been handed down remains a good source for understanding what made ancient whalers tick.

Nowadays, the art of scrimshaw has changed, essentially because of restrictions on raw material: whales, just like the elephant and the rhinoceros, are protected species. Scrimshanders, that’s how they’re called, have had to find alternative materials. Overall, however, the technique has remained much the same, although shark skin and wood coal dust have been replaced by sandpaper for polishing, and the sail needle has been supplanted by a sharp tungsten tip and other instruments inherited from the dental laboratory.

Engraving is always preceded by careful polishing to create the smoothest possible surface. Sandrine then first creates the design by penciling it on a fine coat of rubber she has previously applied. Once the design is engraved she etches it with the color of choice. Where whalers once used verdigris, soot or cuttlefish ink, today’s scrimshanders go for china ink or oil paint.

Drawing and sketching has always been part of Sandrine’s life while her introduction to scrimshaw happened during her travels, starting about ten years ago. First she met Roy in Madagascar, who told her a lot about this art form of which she had only heard speak, then John presented her with a small sperm whale tooth and at just about the same time she encountered Sharon Burger, one of South Africa’s two prominent scrimshanders.

When Sandrine arrived in St. Barth and indulged her curiosity about its history, population and topography, she remembered that Stanley Dorman, a passionate scrimshaw collector from Cape Town, had asked her for ink illustrations of Haut Bay and the hill of Constancia together with Cape Town’s Table Mountain and a few windjammers, like in the old days.

The idea took some time to mature and she went about searching the archives for old engravings of St. Barth, historic views of this charming island in the Caribbean archipelago. Newly found friends helped her with her research and finally she was ready go to work.

The story would not be complete without mentioning that Sandrine and her companion began their sailing voyage quite some time ago in the Pacific. Now, 14 years later, they are in St. Barth and ready to explore the Caribbean, which might take just as long. So, « Mabrouka Kalfouna!» to them, «Welcome to the Caribbean!».

Source: Tropical magazine n° 17, season 2007-2008, page 53.

Text: Maud Toledo

Photos: Elisa Bally - Jean-Jacques Rigaud

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