Remembering the Scrimshaw collection I saw at the Scott Polar Research Institute last year, I can see its relationship to engraved turtle shells of earliest Chinese calligraphy.

In both cases, the marks are largely defined by what is possible to mark in the materials used.

In whale bones, teeth, and turtle shells, the marks were lines and dots.

Surprisingly, a careful examination has revealed that most scrimshaw engravings were done with a very fine sharp blade. Occasionally a fine point was used but evidence of a graving tool is extremely rare. Sometimes a stipple of dots was used in places and a few designs were entirely stippled. Occasionally other marks such as deep pits or triangular picks are found…

Of the types of motif found in the SPRI collection, two categories [of subject matter] far outnumber the rest. Most common are sailing ships and boats, both mercantile and including whaling scenes, and naval including sea-fights. Flags or ensigns identify many as British with rather fewer from the U.S.A. A number are without identification.

A close second in frequency are pictures of women, generally in quite detailed clothes which were in fashion from ca. 1820 to 1880 but predominantly from the 1840’s and 1850’s.

Fairly common are various patriotic motifs other than flags and ensigns. These are mainly British and American but include a rare pair with Spanish inscriptions.

There are similar numbers with various mammals, birds and plants.

A small number are decorated with buildings, coastal features (including lighthouses), sailors, soldiers, couples, children and literary/theatrical figures. There are single examples of others, including two street musicians, a very rare motif.

Ref. Scrimshaw and the Sperm whale: The collection at The Scott Polar Research Institute Dr. Janet West, Updated 24th June 2004.