Scrimshaw is considered by many to be the only indigenous American folkart, except of course, for the Native American arts. It originated in New England and was first practiced by the Yankee sailors working on whale ships. The whaling voyages lasted from three to five years and often a whale was not sighted for weeks or months. The sailors would pass the time making objects out of the expendable materials at hand, namely whalebone and whale teeth, which had no commercial value. The term ‘scrimshaw’ is actually derived from on old Dutch word meaning ‘to spend time idly’. They would use shark skin to smooth the surface, then etch lines into the tooth using a sail mending needle or knife. Whale blood and lamp black were used to fill the lines. The term scrimshaw also applies to objects that were carved, usually gifts for their girls back home. Fine collections of this ‘original’ scrimshaw can be seen in museums, to include Mystic Seaport, and the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
With the invention of the combustion engine, the light bulb, and the discovery of fossil fuels, there was no longer a market for whale oil. The whaling industry, and scrimshaw, were both in decline by the turn of the century. It was virtually a lost art. President John F. Kennedy single handedly responsible for bringing scrimshaw back to the public eye. He was an avid collector and displayed many of his cherished pieces in the Oval Office. His interest contributed to the national recognition of scrimshaw as an important art form.
The original ‘scrimshanders’ were not artists. The greatest masters of this craft are working today, and though the numbers are few, the modern masterpieces they create are highly prized by collectors and contribute greatly to this significant and historical art form. Jane Tukarski is one of those present day artists who is working to preserve this traditional maritime art which is truly in danger of becoming extinct.