This beautiful scrimshaw design is of a whaling ship in trouble on stormy seas and can be seen on display at Lynn Museum alongside many other items telling the story of the town’s rich maritime past.
Like many scrimshaws this example is a carved sperm whale tooth. Scrimshaws were made by whaling sailors while at sea to pass the time, particularly at night when it was too dangerous to go whaling.
Scrimshaw makers, or scrimshanders used thin metal tools to carve designs into the soft teeth, which were left over from whaling. Soot or tobacco juice was rubbed into the surface to make the design stand out. Many sailors sold their works of art back at port to earn some extra money.
This scrimshaw is likely from the late 18th century when the whaling industry was at its height.
The King’s Lynn whaling industry brought great wealth to the town from the 18th to the 19th century.
Whaling ships sailed out to seas around Greenland to hunt sperm whales from March to June. Once brought back the blubber was boiled at Blubber House Creek on the River Nar, and spread a horrible smell across South Lynn.
Whale products were used in furniture, clothing and lighting until the introduction of gas lighting in the 19th century. Norfolk’s whaling industry went into decline.
Due to the Endangered Species Act pieces scrimshaws can only be obtained through strict legal procedures and the art form is no longer active, as it does not use an easily renewable animal resource.