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The Scrimshaw technique is one of the few art forms that experts say originated in America. This technique has been popular since the 1800s and involves etching a picture onto whale bone or ivory and then filling in that picture with ink to bring out the artwork. The Scrimshaw technique originated with sailors trying to pass time on their long journeys on whaling ships out of New England.

While early forms of this technique was seen on Dutch whaling ships as early as the 17th century, Scrimshaw as it is known today was born in the 18th century on American vessels.

Before 1820, whale bones and ivory were used as bartering tools. However, they lost the trading value as trade items when there became a surplus of sperm whale teeth in the early 1820s. This is when the art of Scrimshaw came into popularity.

Whaling voyages usually lasted anywhere from three to five years. The ships were usually overstaffed, leaving the sailors with plenty of time on their hands between whale sightings. Etching artwork on whale bones and ivory became a creative way to pass the time. Sailors would keep their artwork as gifts for loved ones, mementos of the voyage, or trophies of the whales they’ve slaughtered.

The Scrimshaw technique was an effective past time because it involved painstaking details. This is because ivory in its natural state is extremely porous. In order to etch picture on it, it must be smoothed and polished first. This way when the ink is applied it will only fill the lines etched by the artist and not the scratches and pores created by nature.

After the polishing stage is complete, a picture was usually drawn on before the carving began. If the picture was especially complicated it may even be sketched on paper before directly drawn on the bone. Then the drawing is etched out.

When the etching is complete, the artists will apply ink to the piece. The excess ink should be wiped of quickly, leaving only the etched out lines stained. The dark ink made a dramatic and distinctive contrast against the pale color of the ivory and bone.

Ink will usually need to be applied twice in order to achieve maximum impact. If corrections need to be made the artist may need to sand and re polish certain areas to start again.

When the whaling industry died down the Scrimshaw technique all but disappeared. It was brought back to life again when John F. Kennedy became president. Kennedy had an extraordinary collection of Scrimshaw pieces. When the public learned about his collection there was a resurgence of people looking for Scrimshaw pieces to collect. This spawned a new generation of Scrimshaw artists.

Scrimshaw is still a technique practiced by artists today; however, the materials they use have changed slightly. In 1973, The Endangered Species Act was enacted. This act made ivory a restricted material. Then in 1989, African elephant ivory became regulated as well. Due to these restrictions, artists were forced to find other mediums to unleash their artistic expressions.

Currently, artists use fossil ivories to etch their artwork. This includes tusks of ancient walruses and the extinct woolly mammoth. Because the supply of these ivory fossils is limited and dwindling, Scrimshaw may soon become extinct itself.

When Scrimshaw artists run out of ivory to carve, the technique will most likely die out altogether. The current generation of artists is aware of the finite supply of ivory and are as a result are making special efforts to make their pieces unique and of high quality. Scrimshaw art is becoming increasingly popular amongst collectors as a result.

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