Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions
CANE WITH FEMALE LEG HANDLE and CANE WITH FEMALE LEG AND DARK BOOT HANDLE
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  • Artists unidentified
  • Probably eastern United States
  • c. 1860
  • Whale ivory and whale skeletal bone with horn, ink and nail (left); whale skeletal bone, mahogany, and ivory with paint (right)
  • 29 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. (left); 34 x 3 3/4 in. (right)
  • Private collection

    The art of scrimshaw—embellished keepsakes made from organic materials derived from whales and other marine mammals—is largely a by-product of the American whaling industry. Operating from such ports as Nantucket, New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, whaling flourished from about 1830 through the early twentieth century. Making scrimshaw helped to fill time and deflect the complex emotional dynamics that characterized male crews confined onboard ship for long periods of time. The act of carving also enabled sailors to maintain an emotional link to loved ones on distant shores by fashioning various tokens as gifts. Beginning scrimshanders started with a simple project like a plain walking stick and moved on to more ambitious work as their skill increased.
  • Photo © 2000 John Bigelow Taylor, New York