Term Paper: Scrimshaw: As History and Currency

Pages: 8 (2856 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Art  (general)  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] The connections between actual voyages, real sailors with written stories are often few and far between. In the extensive notes of the Humiston biography there is a mention of a collection of marine artifacts that were sold as a collection and may have contained traceable links to Amos' real voyages:

second logbook of the Harrison's voyage, covering the period from October 1, 1852 to April 13, 1854, was sold at auction by the Richard A. Bourne Company of Hyannis, Massachusetts, on August 23, 1969. Its current whereabouts are unknown. See lot 213 in the catalog, Important Marine Auction: An Exceptional Collection of Marine Paintings, Scrimshaw, Journal Whaling Log Books, and Related Marine Items, courtesy ODHSWM; and Mark H. Dunkelman, "Whaleship Harrison?" Nautical World (October 1997): 8, 10.

(Dunkelman 26)

This particular notation gives light to the kind of losses that have occurred over the years as Scrimshaw art and its links to recorded history have been lost. It remains to be seen if these wrongs might be righted in the future by some heretofore unknown collection that exists within a costal families own collection.

To a lesser degree whaling was apart of the Pacific coast life as well as what would traditionally have been thought of as the whaling center of the United States, on the east. In the journal of a prominent Pacific North West Physician who worked in a later British owned Pacific North West whaling station there is many mentions of his love and fascination with the art of scrimshaw. The whaling history on the west coast of what was to become the U.S. And Canada was slightly longer, as the frontier nature of the land and the varied ownership and commercial exploits were more international for longer periods of time, compared to the east coast of the U.S. One can liken the industry to the trapping industry that flourished but then died as the use of the Beaver hat declined.

After a chain broke and trapped the carpenter Iwabuchi inside a whale's jaws, Robbins treated his wounds and received in return a pipe, which Iwabuchi had scrimshawed from a single sperm whale's tooth. 126 Even though the long voyages of sailing whaleships were done, scrimshaw remained the folk art of the whalemen. (Webb 249)

Here the historian mentions the variations of use, for scrimshaw that might have been more prominent on the Pacific side of the whaling industry in the U.S.

Ivory cribbage boards made of two butted sperm-whale teeth were a popular item at the British Columbia whaling stations; pipes, bookends and even miniature harpoons were occasionally fashioned. 127 "I Robbins received presents of two canes carved from the jaw bones of sperm whales, one from Iwabuchi and another from "Russian Louie," an older deckhand in one of the chaser boats. 128 He was fascinated by the artistry of these men and touched by their kindness. After receiving the second cane, he wrote: "I shall have plenty of whale bone for support when I'm old and feeble. Can't hurt either man's feelings by turning down these gifts which I'm really very fond of." 129 When he returned to Chicago he brought many pieces of scrimshaw, including several cribbage boards, the pipe, a desk set, cigarette holders, ash trays, canes, napkin rings, "lamp bases, and totem poles, the majority of which were created by Iwabuchi and 'Russian Louie.' 130 " (Webb 249-250)

Another important function of Scrimshaw is also mentioned as of secondary importance in these passages, but must not fail to be mentioned, here. The use of Scrimshaw as gifts for loved ones at home was mentioned earlier, as almost payment for the absence of a loved one the sailors lovingly constructed lavish trinkets for their wives and mothers, fathers and children. Yet, here as it becomes more evident that many of these international participants were in many ways without homes, they surely did return with handmade gifts but they also used their art as a form of currency. In this example the scrimshaw art was used as individual payment for the doctor who helped treat the wounds of their trade. Though the physician would have been on retainer for the shipping company one of the most personal and individual of payments the sailor could have given was his scrimshaw art.

The sailors were most often paid a percentage of the final profit of the voyage. In this manner they spent most of the long journey in debt to the captain, for the deduction of his room and board were taken from the final cut. So, if the voyage was long the sailor might have little if any pocket money to purchase goods and pay for services from anyone but the company, having to pay for trade goods with bartering and draws from the captain on possible future profits.

If the trip turned bad, they might go home, after years of hard labor and/or boredom, with a debt larger than they could repay, trapping them in the whaler's life.

It was through scrimshaw's use as currency that it traveled all over the world in such an anonymous way, leaving in its wake only a first generation memory of the notoriety of its maker, and probably his nickname, as many of these salty crews hinted little of their true identity, for personal and possible legal reasons or maybe simply to retain a certain image among his fellow seaman or their inability to manage his language, a nautical tradition.

Works Cited

Dunkelman, Mark H. Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1999.

This is the biographical interpretation of the life of the famous civil war soldier

Amos Humiston. The importance of the work for this application is in regard to Humiston's life aboard the whaling ship Harrison prior to his service in the civil war. It chronicles the life of a novice whaler and also the fascinating history of a Gettysburg celebrity.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1921.

This is an invaluable work representing the nautical industry on the eastern side of the United States. Within this work there are several mentions of the role Scrimshaw plays in both history and also in the lives of the whalemen who traveled the seas. It also mentions the importance of whaling as a part of a large complex of accepted penal incarceration long before physical penal institutions existed in the United States.

Paszkiewicz, Steve. And Roger Schroeder Scrimshaw. New York: Fox Chapel

Publishing, 1999.

Most of this publication is dedicated to the modern art of scrimshaw, a how to application of the creation of the art with modern tools and implements. Though this work is primarily a testament to the modern rebirth for the art the importance of the brief Scrimshaw history, that serves as the preface to the work is invaluable for the study of the history of Scrimshaw.

Sten, Christopher ed. Savage Eye: Melville and the Visual Arts. Kent, OH: Kent State

University Press, 1991.

This work is a biographical and academic exploration of the influence that visual fine arts had upon the famed Herman Melville and the possible influence he had upon it.

In this work Melville defines the spirit of Scrimshaw and builds the legacy for the anonymous Scrimshaw artist. Giving the whalers credit for the savage and folk beauty of their work and urging fine artists of his time to emulate it. The work expresses the influence Scrimshaw art has had on fine art and folk art alike.

Webb, Robert Lloyd. On the Northwest: Commercial Whaling in the Pacific Northwest, 1790-1967. Vancouver, B.C.: University of British Columbia Press, 1988.

This work is a comprehensive history of the whaling industry on the Pacific side of the United States. It focuses on the influence of the industry and gives a very bold description of the lives of the Pacific whalers. The work demonstrates the importance of the art of scrimshaw as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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