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Banana Scrimshaw

Walrus tusk carved into a cribbage board

This scrimshaw cribbage board was carved from a walrus tusk in the collection at The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, VA. On one side is carved a seal, ptarmigans, and flowers. On the other side is a hunter in a kayak and a seal on an ice floe. There is a storage cavity for the cribbage pegs. (For more information, click here)

What is Scrimshaw? Scrimshaw is the practice of carving designs and drawings on bone or ivory. It was a practice started on ships during the late 18th or early 19th centuries. As a colonial port, London Town welcomed many ships and sailors from across the world.

According to Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, "The crew on whalers had plenty of leisure time between sighting and chasing whales, and the hard parts of whales were readily available on voyages that could last up to four years.

"In its simplest form, a tooth was removed from the lower jaw of a sperm whale and the surface was prepared by scraping and sanding until it was smooth. The easiest way to begin an etching was to smooth a print over the tooth, prick the outline of the image with a needle and then “connect-the-dots” once the paper was removed. This allowed even unskilled craftsmen to create fine carvings. Some sailors were skilled enough to etch their drawings freehand. After the lines were finished, they were filled in with lamp black or sometimes colored pigments."

Create Scrimshaw at Home Try the art of scrimshaw by using a paper clip on a banana. It's really as simple as that!

Connecting to Today

If you're doing this activity with kids, try asking them the following: Sailors on whaling ships were out for years at a time with the same people in a small space. They were "staying on boat" like we're "staying at home." What do you think it would be like to be stuck like that for years? Do you think you would get on each other's nerves? How would you solve disagreements?

Sailors carved things they saw around them on their voyage. What do you think you'd see if you were on on a sailing ship? Follow Up Activity: After carving your banana scrimshaw, write a postcard home telling your best friend about everything you've seen.


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