Island Science

Tooth and Nail – Ivory throughout the Ages

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

For the second time this past week I was fortunate to be in the Nantucket Whaling Museum accompanying a group of students.  Each year I take 10-15 groups there and I never tire of seeing the exhibits.  I was casting about for a theme for this week’s article when I saw the ivory exhibit in the A to Z “Cabinet of Curiosities.”  I have always had some mixed feelings about the wonderful collection of scrimshaw at the Whaling Museum.  These beautiful and often functional objects obviously represent many hours of labor and their creation by sailors on whaling vessels launched one of the most desired and  important types of American Folk Art.  But the very characteristics that made these objects durable and beautiful also severely impacted populations of whales, elephants, rhinoceros, and walruses.

Ivory is a term for dentine, which constitutes the bulk of the teeth and tusks of animals.  The term is typically used to describe these animal’s remains when it is used as material for art or manufacturing.  Ivory has been important since ancient times for making a range of items, from ivory carvings to false teeth, fans, dominoes, piano keys, pipes, jewelry and body ornaments, statuettes, and billiard balls. Elephant ivory has been the most important source, but ivory from many species including the hippopotamus, walrus, pig, mammoth, sperm whale, and narwhal has been used.  The word ivory derives from the Ancient Egyptian âb, âbu “elephant,” through the Latin ebor- or ebur.

On whaling vessels in the mid-eighteenth century, sailors would while away the mind-numbingly dull hours at sea by making scrimshaw among other hobbies.  Anyone who has ever gone on a long voyage (and oceanographic voyages are no different) knows that boredom can be a constant companion.  While collecting the bodies of sperm whales and baleen whales for the blubber oil, sperm oil and the associated spermaceti, ship captains would hand out the worthless teeth to artistic members of the crew to engrave or carve.  Those who made scrimshaw were called scrimshanders. They engraved images on ivory, whalebone, whale teeth, wood and shells, and carved items of bone and exotic woods.  Typical works include decorated whale teeth and practical items such as napkin rings, canes, knitting needles, pickwicks (for lifting short oil lamp wicks), knives, pie crimpers or jagging wheels (for cutting pastry), bodkins (for embroidery), swifts (yarn winders), and tools of all sorts for shipboard use.

The term originally referred to the making of these tools, only later referring to works of art created by whalers in their spare time.  In their natural form, the ivory whale’s teeth had ridges and other imperfections that had to be removed before the engraving work could be done, the sailors removed the imperfections by first scraping them with a knife, then they would smooth the surface to be scrimshawed with sharkskin or pumice, the last step was to polish them to a high gloss finish with a cloth.

On the whaling ships the scrimshaw engravings were done with a pocket knife or if the sailor/whaler was lucky he would get a discarded needle from the ships sail maker.  With the knife or needle the sailor would cut and/or scratch a picture into the polished surface.  Throughout the engraving process the sailor would rub a pigment into the cuts and scratches, since ink wasn’t readily available they would get soot from the chimney of the ships cooking stove, or they would grind up gun powder with a little whale oil, it was the pigment rubbed into the cuts and scratches that made the picture come to life.  A broad range of subjects were depicted on the whale teeth but the most common were portraits of the ship they were sailing on, portraits of wives or sweethearts back home, all kinds of sea creatures, mermaids and more.  It wasn’t until the 1960s, roughly a hundred years later that the popularity of scrimshaw began to grow and the renewed interest was credited to President John F. Kennedy who was an avid collector of scrimshaw. Much of the scrimshaw at the Nantucket Whaling museum is from sperm whale teeth.

The sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) is a marine mammal species, order Cetacea, in the sub order of Odontoceti (toothed whales which include dolphins) and has the largest brain of any animal.  The name comes from the milky-white waxy substance, spermaceti, found in the animal’s head which was erroneously and somewhat hilariously, thought to be the whale’s sperm when it was first discovered, anatomy apparently not being their strong suit. The sperm whale is the only living member of genus Physeter.  It is one of three extant species in the sperm whale superfamily, along with the pygmy sperm whale and dwarf sperm whale.

Each sperm whale would have 18 to 26 teeth on each side of its lower jaw which fit into sockets in the upper jaw.  The teeth are cone-shaped and weigh up to 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) each.  A typical sperm whale tooth is 10-20 cm long although they can reach length of 25 cm.  They are hollow at the bottom.  The sperm whale’s ivory-like teeth were often sought by 18th and 19th-century whalers, who used them to produce inked carvings known as scrimshaw.  Thirty teeth of the sperm whale can be used for ivory (i.e., those teeth which are partially hollow).  Like walrus ivory, sperm whale ivory has two distinct layers.  However, sperm whale ivory contains a much thicker inner layer.  Though a widely practiced art in the 19th century, scrimshaw using genuine sperm whale ivory declined substantially after the retirement of the whaling fleets in the 1880s.  Currently the Endangered Species Act and CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, prevents the sales of or trade in sperm whale ivory harvested after 1973 or in scrimshaw crafted from it.       (

From the Nantucket Historical Association’s (NHA) website “The scrimshaw in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association is the result of over a century and a half of passionate collecting, and is considered one of the most important collections in the world.  Highlights of the collection include some of the earliest and rarest sperm whale teeth, engraved by the most famous of all scrimshaw artists, Nantucketers Frederick Myrick and Edward Burdett; outstanding examples of teeth by the anonymous scrimshaw hands known as the Ceres Artisan, the Banknote Engraver, the Naval Battle Captain; and dozens of the finest-quality teeth, many with direct Nantucket provenances.  In addition to the superb collection of teeth, every aspect of the scrimshander’s art is represented in the collection, including dazzling specimens of swifts, busks, canes, jagging wheels, coconut-shell dippers, ditty boxes, furniture, tools, Arctic ivory, and plaques.”

Throughout time, several species of elephants, walruses, hippos, and marine mammals have suffered as a result of the ivory trade.  Though there are sources of ivory that are sanctioned and legal, poachers in Africa and other continents where elephants are an endangered species still kill for their ivory. One item in particular that devastated the elephant herds in Kenya in the first half of the 20th century was the demand for elephant tusk ivory for piano keys.  Elephant ivory has been regulated since 1976 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and selling African ivory has been prohibited since 1989.  19th and 20th century scrimshaw, scrimshaw crafted before 1989 (elephant) or before 1973 (sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory etc.) is legal.  It is prohibited after that year for commercial import in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Additionally, walrus tusks bearing the Alaska State walrus ivory registration tag, and post-law walrus ivory that has been carved or scrimshawed by a native Alaskan Indian (Eskimo), is legally available.  Finally, any ivory considered ancient, such as 10,000 to 40,000 year old mammoth ivory, is completely unrestricted in its sale or possession. (

In 2007,  eBay, under pressure from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, banned all international sales of elephant-ivory products.  The decision came after several mass slaughters of African elephants, most notably the 2006 Zakouma elephant slaughter in Chad.  The IFAW found that up to 90% of the elephant-ivory transactions on Ebay violated their own wildlife policies and could potentially be illegal.  In October 2008, eBay expanded the ban, disallowing any sales of ivory on eBay.  And unfortunately, in recent years, poaching of African elephants has increased in spite of protections and surveillance. (

Over the past several hundred, even thousands of years, other cultures have revered whale bone and whale teeth as objects of beauty and power. Tabua is a polished tooth of a sperm whale that is an important cultural item in Fijian society.  They were traditionally given as gifts for atonement or esteem (called sevusevu) and were important in negotiations between rival chiefs.  Both the Greek and Roman civilizations practiced ivory carving to make large quantities of high value works of art, precious religious objects, and decorative boxes for costly objects.  Maori and other indigenous tribes in New Zealand made scrimshaw objects primarily used as breast pendants for warriors and chiefs and other men in positions of power.  The Chinese and Japanese have both extensively used ivory in many items including netsuke (miniature sculptures) and hankos (name seals).  Hankos can be carved out in a matter of seconds using machinery and were partly responsible for massive African elephant decline in the 1980s when the African elephant population went from 1.3 million to around 600,000 in ten years and Currey.

There are many types of artificial ivory, and a polymer available in gift items at the NHA whaling museum’s gift shop is especially beautiful (and very affordable).  Common modern materials are micarta, “fossil” ivory (reused much older material), hippo tusk, warthog ivory, buffalo horn, giraffe bone, mother of pearl, and camel bone.  Modern scrimshaw typically retains the nautical themes of historical scrimshaw, but can also go well outside of the traditional.  A company called GPS Agencies LTD. is the sole supplier of Ivory Alternative Col. 849/TM, a specially cast polyester with the full and varied characteristics of real ivory.  Much of the scrimshaw available today are old pieces in which the ivory predates modern regulations.  Whether you are buying a lightship basket or a solid piece of scrimshaw, do your homework and shop responsibly and respect the animal whose bones and teeth have provided such beauty.

Articles by Date from 2012