The 19th century whaling industry was one of the foremost businesses in America. Hundreds of ships set out from ports (mostly in New England) and roamed the world, sailing home with whale oil and other byproducts derived from whales. The fossil fuel of the early Industrial Revolution, whale oil provided both light and lubrication to the rapidly growing new economy of a young America. Special mention is made to the New Bedford whaling ﬂeet, with the most numerous, far-ranging voyages which covered the world, often lasting several years and extending far and wide.
While American ships created a highly organized industry, the hunting of whales already had ancient roots, and it is believed that hunting whales originated thousands of years ago. Throughout recorded history, the enormous mammals have been highly prized for the products they can provide.
When whalers were not engaged in routine hunting or ship maintenance, they spent time carving materials they harvested from the whales themselves including the teeth and bones of sperm whales, baleen from Right and Bowhead whales, and walrus tusks. At times whalers obtained materials through barter from Native peoples. This resulted in both practical and decorative objects, often intricately carved and carefully crafted. Whalers would bring their handcrafted mementos and souvenirs home for loved ones, a token of affection after their long voyage had ended. The range of the work is remarkable, not limited to decorated sperm whale teeth that the word “scrimshaw” typically envisions, but other objects as well including and canes/walking sticks. Anything that could be made from ivory, bone, wood, and other found objects retrieved during their travels was incorporated into often beautiful works of art.