Folk Art and The Whalers

What is Scrimshaw?

Scrimshaw is the folk art of the whaler. It is the result of a creative pastime encouraged by the Captains for whalers in long periods of waiting for the whales. Scrimshaw is usually made from whalebone, teeth or baleen (a hard substance from the mouths of filter feeding whales). Baleen is a keratin material similar to the protein components found in hair, feathers, claws and fingernails. It comes from the Mysticeti species of whale known as the Greenland, West Artic, Bowhead, or ‘Right Whale’. The baleen develops as two parallel rows of narrow plates hanging from the roof of the mouth. The baleen tapers in towards the end of the tube, eventually wearing away to reveal bristles. Baleen can be recognised through the appearance of the train or growth lines.


The origin of the term 'scrimshaw' is not clear and is discussed a lot. In parts of England it was used early on to describe past-times, games and recreations. When the ship was tidy, the captain ordered his crew to be 'scrimshandering' for the day, or for them to be pre-occupied with a creative past-time. Scrimshaw was a way for men to try and capture the dangers and extremes they lived through – to share with the people on shore who would never be able to understand. Scrimshaw was also a way of expressing their loneliness, homesickness, patriotism and general interests.


Scrimshaw was often personalised as gifts for wives and girlfriends, as a reminder of the man who made it. For example: busks were long rigid pieces of whalebone to be used by women to stiffen the front of their bodices. It was decorated and to be worn literally next to the heart whilst he was away at sea, which might be for five years or more.

Document icon Learning article provided by: Hull Maritime Museum | 
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