The Cahoon Museum of American Art on Cape Cod has been diving into the history of scrimshaw. Don't know what that is? Well, you're not alone. This largely forgotten folk art form — created by whalemen at sea in the 1800s — is filled with stories about a finite period in American history.
Whaling was a major money-making industry in 19th-century New England. The oil extracted from whale blubber lit homes across the U.S. and lubricated all manner of machinery.
The hunt for whales has been dramatized and romanticized in books and films, including Herman Melville's classic "Moby-Dick." Yes, there was adventure, but Cahoon Museum director Sarah Johnson said toiling away on whale ships was mostly grueling — physically and emotionally.
“It was a life of long moments of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, and there were long periods of downtime in between the whale hunts," she said, because the sailors were at sea for months, even years. "This is where the art form of scrimshaw was really developed.”
The whalers, who were often in their teens, found a way to express themselves by turning discarded whale bones and teeth into novel canvases. They polished them to a high gloss, then carved intricate images on the surfaces before filling their finely etched lines with pigment.
“They weren't trained as artists, they didn't have any fancy materials, they had just the scraps of the whaling industry — you know, their knives and some lamp black,” Johnson said. “And out of that, they made these incredible objects.”
About 200 top-notch examples are on display in the comprehensive exhibition “Scrimshaw: The Whaler's Art.” A handful were made by professional scrimshanders, as they're called. But according to the show's curator, Alan Granby, 95% were created by amateur artists. Most of the works aren't even signed.
Granby has been collecting and researching scrimshaw for 50 years. “Art embellishes our lives. It wakes us up. It makes us think,” he said. “Scrimshaw does all that, but it also brings us into history.”
Granby said the images in this show (that also fill his ginormous, photography-rich book about scrimshaw) offer windows into what the young sailors were seeing, feeling, thinking about and reading at sea.
There are teeth featuring watery landscapes and ships being smashed by giant whale tails. Also, portraits of national heroes and loves left behind. The scrimshanders fashioned impressive, utilitarian gifts out of whalebone for their girlfriends and wives, including pie crimpers, sewing boxes and busks which were used to stiffen their corsets.
A popular 1837 book about pirates inspired a bunch of scrimshanders to copy an image they discovered between its pages. That engraving depicts a mythic 5th-century Scandinavian princess-turned-swashbuckler named Alwilda. There’s a primo tooth carving of her in the exhibition.
Alwilda wears a debonair, tight-waisted black jacket with a checkerboard pattern below the waist. She looks out at the viewer defiantly while wielding a curved, cutlass sword over her head.
With Sarah Johnson's help, Granby happily unfurled Alwida's entertaining tale.
“She was quite beautiful, and she was quite the target of the young men of the day. Her father wanted her to have nothing to do with them,” Granby began.
“So he kind of held her captive in a tower that was supposedly surrounded by snakes,” Johnson continued. “And he informed his daughter that she was to be married to a Danish prince."
Alwilda didn't agree with that arrangement.
“Finally, she figured out a way to break out of her imprisonment,” Granby said.
“As part of her escape, she disguised herself in the clothing of a sailor — a male sailor,” Johnson continued with Granby delivering the punch line: “And she joined up with a women's crew and became their captain on a pirate vessel.”
The myth of Alwilda (which very likely isn't true) has two different endings — one tragic where the Danish king mistakes her for a man and kills her in battle onboard her ship; the other more amorous where they marry and Alwilda becomes Queen of Denmark. Regardless, Johnson called it, "a great story of female empowerment and adventure."
It is interesting to consider why the 19th-century whalers were so captivated by Alwilda's wild narrative. Granby estimates he's seen about 20 carvings of Alwilda over the years.
“Why are there so many of them? I think because of the romance of the story,” he mused. “The whole concept that fascinates you about a woman pirate fascinates others — it's basically got everything going for it.”
These days Alwilda teeth can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction. Granby said the large, colorful one on loan for the Cahoon Museum's exhibition is one of the best he's ever seen.
Scrimshaw began to disappear as fossil fuels replaced whale oil in the early 1900s. Now, people like Granby — who are preserving the art form's past — hope more folks will take a look back at this history and give it a chance.
“We are doing everything within our power to try to maintain it,” he said. “Scrimshaw is about as nichey a niche as you're going to find — although there are some pretty esoteric things that people collect.”
For Johnson, one takeaway from this exhibition is that the urge to create is in all of us. “And maybe, in fact, when you're in a situation that's dangerous and dirty, that's when you need art the most.”
“Scrimshaw: The Whaler's Art” is on view at the Cahoon Museum of Art in Cotuit through Oct. 30.