Whale tooth scrimshaw


Materials: polymer plastic
Dimensions: 10 centimeters high
Place acquired:  charity shop, north London
Place of manufacture: not known

The ship is called The Dakota, and the date inscribed above it claims that this whale tooth was carved in 1860. That’s just three years after the invention of the kerosene lamp, which burned ‘coal oil’ from the newly discovered oil wells of Pennsylvania. Now we just call it oil, and this fossil fuel was to become cheap and plentiful (for the next century at least), and it signaled the end of the global whaling industry just in time to save many species of whale from complete extinction.

As well as many other by-products, whale carcasses provided the high-grade oil that lit the homes and lubricated the machinery of the early industrial revolution in Europe and America. Whaling was one of America’s earliest global industries and it was one of the first times in modern history that a natural resource was exploited to the point of near total exhaustion.

Scrimshaw is the name given to the art of scratching designs into the ivory, teeth and bones of animals, and it is most associated with the whaling industry, which boomed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An attitude of bravado, and of human entitlement to the fruits of the planet, is there in the very appearance of much whaling scrimshaw. The slaughtered whale itself is rarely paid tribute to. Its body parts become just a surface on which to scratch a fanfare to the hunting vessels and the regional pride of the whalers themselves. The imagery has a kind of heraldic swagger, evidence of a separation of action from environmental consequence that was to become so characteristic of modern industrial production, particularly of energy.

My tooth was not carved in 1860 of course. Whaling scrimshaw is rare, and highly collectable, hence the market in ‘fakeshaw’, of which this little object is a prime example. Artificial scrimshaw, made from polymer plastic, is sometimes so convincing that it fools even the experts and upsets the collector market. In an attempt to monitor and prevent this the New Bedford Whaling Museum, in Massachusetts, publishes a list of known fake scrimshaw products. Number 29 on this list reads,

Tooth, 4 inches (10 cm). [Manufacturer not identified.] Obverse:  Three-quarter bow-on view of a ship or bark with studding-sails, signal flags, USA ensign, highly decorated, labelled "The DAKOTA" and dated 1860.  Reverse:  "Raw" surface inscribed in riband outline "NANTUCKET."

It’s my tooth! I never thought for a moment that it was genuine, but I’m rather relieved to find proof that it’s not.