While of unclear etymology, scrimshaw occurs in some English texts as slang for any craft work done for one’s own, at leisure, and usually referred to any decoration or utensil made from bone. A folk term, the word now refers more specifically to the decorative art of engraving on these materials. Scrimshandry is the practice of making scrimshaw. I’ve been practicing scrimshandry for almost a decade, focusing mostly on personal work or gifts for friends.
In the US, we usually encounter scrimshaw only as an antique product of the bygone whaling industry: a lot of men were needed to work on a whaling vessel, but there wasn’t much work for them all until they found a whale to destroy. A vernacular engraving art which drew from global ornaments and motifs was born as a pastime on ships, using available materials from whales and lampblack for pigment. However the practice of engraving on bone, and then rubbing ink or carbon into the drawings, has significantly broader, older roots. Indigenous practices in far northern societies, notably the Inuit and Sami, pre-date the European and American traditions that the term “scrimshaw” usually refers to. In New England, and the Mid-Atlantic region (where I live and work) there is a particularly rich history of engraving on the powder horns used in tandem with muskets when such tools were introduced by settler-colonialists during the 1800s.
Scrimshaw engraving is a slow, meticulous process done entirely by hand. What I particularly love about the history of this work is that the craft developed during leisure time, when work was over… or, sometimes, when work was supposed to be happening. There is a rich history of laborers finding something more personally fulfilling to do while on the job, in resistance to the grind of imposed wage labor and, more generally, the grind of capitalism on the global working class.
In keeping with tradition, most of the scrimshaw work that I make is for friends + loved ones. I’m not available for commissions, but I do sell some pieces online under the moniker of 8 Bells Scrimshandry. You’re also welcome to follow my scrimshaw work on the 8 Bells Instagram.