Scrimshaw – Antique Whale’s Tooth Art

Of all Americana ephemera, the nautical realm is probably the one i find most fascinating – and whale tooth engravings, known as scrimshaw, are a perfect example of why. Intricately crafted and delicate, yet impossible to separate from the manly act of butchering the largest animals on the planet, scrimshaw retains and encapsulates everything that makes a glorified life at sea an inviting one.

The employment of whale teeth originally emerged in the form of tools that sailors would forge from the excess bones of the whales they harvested, and emerged as an art form secondarily when sailors would carve designs in their spare time in the early 1800s. Unfortunately, this act created a market for whale teeth, and in consequence, the harvesting of whales specifically for their teeth, (just like elephants and the market for their tusks of ivory). Sperm whales were hunted until their species nearly collapsed, and today, scrimshaw is a form of contraband. Nonetheless, antique scrimshaw is an amazing slice of American whaling heritage.

Here are some of my favorites:

More info and pictures can be found here.



Filed under Art

8 responses to “Scrimshaw – Antique Whale’s Tooth Art

  1. joe marzolf

    I have 6 pieces of scrimshaw two of them have the name Charles A Manghis etched on the back. Im interested in selling them for the right price. If your interested, I can send you pictures of them. Thank You Joe

    • Jordi


      I’m interested in buying 1 or more scrimshaw whale tooth pieces.

      Can you send me photos and some more info about yours?

      Thank you

      • joe marzolf

        Hi Jordi, Im sorry it took so long to get back to you as I didnt get a message that you were interested. I happened to look up my name on google and saw that I had 4 responses to my post I sent out some time ago. If your still interested e-mail me at

  2. Rita Thompson

    I found a bracelet with a old ship on it much like the one on one of your items. The scrimshaw part looks a little darker than the teeth in your pictures but mine has some grain to it. I can’t tell if the bracelet part is sterling or not. I have not had it tested. I would like to know if it is real. how could I tell?

  3. Brenda Warner

    I”ve heard that one way to tell is by heating a pin .Try to push it into the “ivory”. If it is “faux” , the pin will melt it’s way in.

    • Jack Chang

      The hot pin test is really not a good way to determine ivory or polymer. It’s done to detect the smell of burnt bone (ivory) or an acrid chemical smell of the polymer. Better to examine the hole made: ivory will have a flat hole with its edges charred. The polymer will have a raised crater. Better yet, use a long wave UV light. Ivory fluoresces, plastic does not.

  4. Stephen J. Stang

    I have an elephant tusk (8″) detailed work by Stephen Turner I need help in determining its current value. Its real ivory and the fine detail can only be appreciated by those who follow Mr. Turner’s work. The piece is signed and was bought in Hawaii in the 1960’s. I can be reached at email: Thank you.

    • Jack Chang

      Unfortunately, your piece may have no value since Obama’s executive order banning ivory sale in the US unless it has documented proof it is over 100 years old. There are some exceptions and the final regulations have not been drawn up. You best check with US Fish and Wildlife Service.

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