Scrimshaw canes

Scrimshaw canes form a unique collecting category.  “Scrimshaw” is the disputed name unaccountably attached to the indigenous occupational pursuit of the whale hunters, employing by-products of the fishery to pass idle hours at sea.”1  New England during the mid-19th century, during the “Golden Age of Whaling” which reached its peak during the first half of the 19th century, was a whaling and shipping hub and New England “scrimshaw” canes made of whalebone may be appropriately be dated to this period (provided other important age-related criteria are met and also point to this particular period of whaling history).  Pictorial scrimshaw existed before then with the earliest known know works of engraved pictorial scrimshaw dating from ca. 1817-1821.2

The earliest examples are made of baleen (whalebone) from Arctic whaling and date to the 17th century, but it continued in an almost unbroken tradition through Antarctic whaling in the 20th century.   Most scrimshaw was done on sperm whaling voyages between 1835 and 1870, as the long cruises required to produce a full cargo provided the most opportunities for pastimes such as scrimshaw.3

Sailors of all nations were scrimshanders; however, the majority of scrimshaw work was produced in America given the fact that the American whaling fleet was far larger than the size of the next whaling fleet.

While many think of scrimshaw as carving or decorating of whale teeth, anything available to the seafarer was used while at sea, ivory, bone, wood, shells, etc. during their long journeys, often lasting months or years.  An infinite variety of scrimshaw artifacts were produced during the Golden Age of Scrimshaw (spanning the 1830s and 1840s), including canes, during the long days and years while away at sea. Whale man John Martin, on his way home on the Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware in 1844 writes in his journal, “There are enough canes in this ship to supply all the old men in Wilmington.”4

Scrimshaw materials were generally sea mammal byproducts which whale men readily encountered. These basic materials were available to whale men every day and included various ivories from teeth and tusks (especially walrus), baleen (whalebone) and skeletal bones which were combined with other found materials including fragments of wood, abalone and other shells, metal and tortoise shell, often used for inlay work.  The most common were the teeth of sperm whales (whale ivory), decorated with pictorial scribe work resembling engraving.   Cane shafts were made from whalebone or shark vertebrae threaded on a steel rod and dated to the middle of the 19th century and later. It was not uncommon for shafts made of walnut or ebony to be fitted with teeth or jaws from the whale.

In her book Canes in the United States, Catherine Dike says, “One firm guideline is that handles of “old” canes are never etched and colored with nautical scenes. The moisture of the hand and the wear of usage could erase the etching and ink upon the knob.” In another passage, Dike says, “When a whale man retired, he continued to “scrimshaw” at home, using more sophisticated tools. It was a good way to pass the time and earn a little money.  Later, others took over the work, copying the old techniques, making it difficult if not impossible to date any particular cane.”  She further elaborates, “The whaling industry collapsed at the turn of the century.  Some experts date ‘old’ scrimshaw as prior to World War I; others allow the period up to 1924, when the last American whaler, the “Wanderer,” sank.”

Fakes and reproductions
Old style whaling using the hand harpoon declined during the 19th century and with it the art of scrimshaw. High prices are paid for what was previously of little commercial value. The art form has also been adopted by other artists and craftsmen, the best of whom sign their work. Unfortunately, with the high price of scrimshaw, many old teeth and tusks (usually walrus), previously undecorated have been engraved and it can be very difficult to tell modern work from old, especially if the materials used were already old.

Noted are large numbers of decorated fake teeth, tusks, whale jaw bones, even ostrich eggs and turtle shells, and of small objects such as little boxes, walking stick handles etc. mass produced from plastic. They are very decorative and some are quite convincing. Many of these are legitimately on sale in gift shops and nautical catalogs.  However, others are sold with intent to deceive, especially seen on internet sites.  Note that plastic and fake-old far outnumbers any genuine old scrimshaw for sale.

There are chemical tests to identify the plastics used but a few simple observations with an x8 hand-lens can possibly help identify fake from authentic.

Enamel is absent from mature Sperm whale teeth which consists of a core of dentine surrounded by a persistent cementum. As the tooth grows, successive cones of dentine and layers of cementum develop. When the tip of the tooth is worn down the ivory layers are exposed and may become differentially stained with age. This may show as wavy lines or bands across the tooth which follows the characteristic “grain” of whale ivory. It is visible on many of the specimens on display. It is almost impossible to reproduce accurately in plastic the enhanced grain of old ivories, nor the spaces always present in the structure of skeletal bone.

Beware of important-looking or highly decorated teeth and tusks. Dates, localities and the names of people and ships are rare on old scrimshaw but common on modern scrimshaw and plastic.

Examine the surface. Even the finest plastic casting will have some fault. Look for irregularities in what should be a smooth surface, especially any raised areas. Pits may be surface damage, but could be from bubbles which, if just below the surface, show as tiny opalescent rings.

Most scrimshaw motifs are engraved with a sharp blade. It impossible to reproduce in a casting the tiny slits which a blade produces.

A freshly exposed surface may have a characteristic smell. Bone, ivory and horn smell quite different from plastic if the volatile materials contained in the matrix are released. If possible make a small scraping with a file or knife blade and sniff it immediately. Styrene-based plastics smell very different from animal materials though epoxy-based plastics have little smell. A hot pin, judiciously applied will penetrate a plastic surface and may release the smell, although owners object to this treatment.

Unique Scrimshaw Walking Canes
By Angelo DeFalco

Cane Quest asked me to write about scrimshaw or nautical walking sticks and I thought it might be interesting to tell about a cane I picked up in the past. It has a whalebone shaft and a whale tooth ivory handle separated from the shaft by some baleen and wooden spacers. What makes it somewhat rare and exciting, at least to me, is that the shaft has been carved by an African, and in my opinion, by a Black whaleman. I don’t know of any other whalebone canes that can be attributed to Black sailors, although if anyone is aware of one I would like to hear about it. The cane is 34 in. in length and has an elongated bulbous whale ivory knob that looks to be original to the stick. The knob has a comparable patina and size to match the color and diameter of the shaft. The shaft itself has been carved in repeating rings with African figures in each section. The tip is brass, I believe. This type of carving was done and, I assume is still done, on the south coast of Africa. I believe the carving is from the Loango area of Africa. I believe it is a particular section of the southern coastline.

There is a great scrimshaw whale tooth illustrated in Norman E. Flayderman’s book, Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders, Whales and Whalemen with similar carvings and there are several elephant tusks with the same figures walking in a carved spiral column up the length of the tusk or tooth. The cane is not carved in a spiral, but rather in separate rings. I surmise that the cane shaft and handle were carved by the same man, but it is possible that they were done separately. However the age, patina, and matching size suggests that they were carved together, probably in the mid-19th century, at the peak of the whaling period. It has been estimated that 25% or more of whale-men were Black and it is probable that if they did any scrimshaw carving, they would draw on their cultural heritage for designs. It is also possible that an African, unassociated with the whaling industry, did the carving from found whale material, but it is unlikely to me that a native would use whale tooth and whalebone to come up with a cane of this type, that is, a walking stick composed of a shaft and separate handle joined by baleen and wood spacers. More likely it seems that the cane was made in the style of the Yankee whalers to whom the Black sailor was exposed, since it resembles other sailor canes and walking sticks I have seen.

I don’t claim to be absolutely positive about my theory, but it does seem to me to be the most likely explanation for this cane.

***Please see the last five pictures on this page which are pictures of the cane described above.

Whaler made canes
Whaler made fist cane
Whaler made fist cane
Whaler made canes
Octagonal whale tooth handled cane and shaft
Two more whaler made canes
Whalebone shaft and whale tooth ivory handle. Picture courtesy of Angelo DeFalco
Shaft detail, picture courtesy of Angelo DeFalco
Shaft detail, picture courtesy of Angelo DeFalco
Picture courtesy of Angelo DeFalco
Unique walking canes - scrimshaw5
Ferrule, picture courtesy of Angelo DeFalco.


1.   The Origins of Engraved Pictorial Scrimshaw, The Magazine Antiques, October, 1992, by Stuart M. Frank.
2.   Overview of Scrimshaw-The Whaler’s Art.
3.   The collection at The Scott Polar Research Institute.
4.   Ibid.
5.   Further information:  Scrimshaw:  Is it Real – Part I-III by Rod Cardoza.  Please visit:  http:// and find articles listed under Features.

For antique cane and walking stick enthusiasts