A Whale of a Tale at the Bowers Museum

Centuries before the United States sent armies to the Middle East to gain or preserve potential petroleum reserves, American ships slaughtered whales for their blubber. We now look at that situation more grimly since we have an understanding of the intelligence of the mammals, but whaling kick-started the economy of the country, and who cared about a soon-to-be devastated whale population when there was money in barrels of oil for lamps and machinery lubricants?

From the leftovers that remained after rendering (bone and baleen), tools and personal items were the second things sailors made: swifts for winding yarn, needles, dinner utensils, buggy whips, pipe tampers, dress hoops, document stamps, matchboxes, navigational rulers, corset stays, snuff boxes, ink quills, whistles, pulleys, seam sealers and other ship equipment.

Then folk art happened: Scrimshaw.

Own an Amazon Kindle? Get a free copy of Herman Melville's classic 1851 novel, Moby Dick, and halfway in, you get the following introduction to scrimshaw: “Throughout the Pacific, and also in Nantucket, and New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on sperm whale teeth, or ladies' busks wrought out of the right whalebone, and other like skrimshander articles. . . . [I]n general, they toil with their jack-knives alone; and, with that almost omnipotent tool of the sailor, they will turn you out anything you please, in the way of a mariner's fancy.”

The scrimshaw process itself wasn't all that difficult: Scrimshanders polished the bones or teeth to buff off the rough natural patina. When the surface was smooth, an image was etched into the softened ivory with a knife. When that was finished, black ink would be rubbed into the design, so that when it was cleaned again, the image would pop out from the enamel.

Works of scrimshaw, as well as other items made from whales, are on magnificent display at the Bowers Museum in the current exhibit “Scrimshaw: The Art and Craft of the American Whaler.”

Most of the work is naive and crude, betraying its utilitarian origins, but sometimes the results can be stunning. In art, the most eye-catching involves some kind of action: two ships engaged in battle, the cannons of one emitting plumes of smoke as a barrage of cannonballs splinters the other ship's masts. A yellowed tooth shows another dynamic scene as a harpooned whale, crimped and tangled in a line, smashes a boat in half and flings it and its sailors into the air, seagulls drifting lazily above them. In another, there are five distressed whales in various forms of capture, despite the sea looking calm and flat.

There are three Victorian-era ladies in full dress—one with just a peek of cleavage, her dress cinched tight at the waist—as well as two representatives of kick-ass bad girls. There's a clunky engraving of female pirate and privateer Fanny Campbell, who dressed like a man and led a mutiny on a ship, then sailed that ship to rescue her imprisoned lover. Also pictured is the legendary Alwilda, another cross-dressing lady pirate; she commandeered ships and buckled some swash and fought hand-to-hand Prince Alf of Denmark, who bested her, then fell in love with and married her. The scrimshaw etching of her on display, copied from Charles Ellun's The Pirates Own Book (a copy of which is provided to make comparisons and is also available for free if you have a Kindle), is a really fine piece. A small niche has been cut into a chunk of whalebone that looks vaguely like a calcified sponge. The scrimshawed female pirate is nestled into its niche, with both pieces resting on another piece of bone, so pitted and stratified it looks like driftwood.

Given the amount of time on their hands and the necessity to keep said hands busy, as well as the almost-religious reverence with which the women are portrayed, these can only be examples of what I would bluntly call wank material. Now, the folks at the Bowers are too polite to say this, but the preponderance of images of women, mostly beautiful (within the limitations of the individual artist), with a tiny bit of cleavage here or there . . . Well, in a world before porn, even if the woman looks faintly like a smudged version of Emily Dickinson, it's pretty obvious what these represent.

The pieces most likely to remain with you afterward aren't the girls, but rather the two elaborate guillotines made by prisoners of war. While the human figures are blocky, stiff and inhuman even when pigmented, the 18th-century decapitation tool that became emblematic of the French Revolution looks like a children's toy straight out of The Addams Family. The tiny, 45-degree-angle blades are fully articulated and can drop easily on the figure lying face-down in its yolk. The tiny heads laying in the baskets are a sweet, grisly punctuation to an exhibit that's about the beauty that can come from destruction.


This review appeared in print as “A Whale of a Tale: 'Scrimshaw: The Art and Craft of the American Whaler' shows the beauty that can come from destruction.”

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