On Scrimshaw

The Vancouver Maritime Museum is currently under fire for corrupting the morality of impressionable young patrons. The museum recently opened a new exhibit, entitled Tattoo and Scrimshaw: The Art of the Sailor, that will run from now until mid-October. According to the National Post’s Brian Hutchinson, a patron demanded the museum remove the part of the exhibit that “features numerous images of inappropriate nature (oral sex, sex, nudity, male anatomy).” Surprisingly, the patron’s complaint was not against the tattoos, but the scrimshaw. More than one hundred years after they were created, scrimshaw is under fire for revealing a common aspect of maritime life.

While it is now considered folk art, scrimshaw at its essence is the byproduct of very bored sailors. During their time at sea, mariners would carve images into the teeth, tusks, and bones of marine mammals killed on whaling expeditions. Soldiers in the Revolutionary War created similar engravings on powder horns. In both instances, these engravings are some of the only surviving examples of art created by ordinary people. Carving what they remembered or craved from home, these individuals entertained themselves through art.

Given that both sailors and soldiers were away from home for months at a time, it should not be surprising that scrimshaw occasionally depicted sex. And as you can see in Hutchinson’s article, whalers had no issue with rendering explicit imagery. Although the protest against the scrimshaw exhibit is being organized by a single patron, I think the Vancouver Maritime Museum should be commended for their willingness to display these objects in the first place. Historians are often uncomfortable with discussing sexuality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and subsequently depict these societies as being completely devoid of sex.

The reality, of course, is much more complicated. Whalers in dedicated marriages served alongside serial adulterers and promiscuous single men. As early as 1647, for instance, Massachusetts attempted to force married mariners to return to their English wives because “they live under great temptation here, and some of them committing lewdness and filthiness here amongst us, others make love to women and attempt marriages, and some have attained it.” Colonial court records are filled with affairs conducted between wives and neighbors while husbands were at sea. Some women, deciding that they no longer wished to be a part of their marriage, fled with their new partners to begin new relationships in another colony. Not only was this method of self-divorce regularly practiced, but communities supported the decision as a viable solution to marital strife.

Artifacts like scrimshaw are a tangible reminder that early Americans were not the prim and proper individuals we often make them out to be. They were, like us, complicated individuals with relatable wants and needs. So if I end up in Vancouver this summer, I will be checking out the scrimshaw. It will certainly be better than pretending the society they reflect never existed.

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