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Quaran-Things: Boredom

Welcome back to Quaran-things, a blog that connects you to the museum collection in this age of quarantining. Today’s topic: boredom. A distinct side-effect of being in quarantine is that the days begin to blend together. I’m fairly certain today is Friday, but I will be honest, I will need to check my phone to be sure. Many of us may be experiencing a pace of life that was very familiar to sailors of the 19th century: a continuous cycle of excitement, stress, and….utter boredom. Have you run out of things to watch on your favorite streaming platform. Yes, me too.

Life at sea was a life of extremes. Beyond your assigned daily tasks and the occasional life-threatening storm, many hours of a sailor’s day, for weeks or months at a time, were spent staring out at the monotony of waves and wind with no television, no internet, and maybe one book you have read five times already.

Scrimshaw is a maritime craft born out of boredom and resourcefulness. Big money was made off of whale oil in the 19th century. Whale ships would butcher the whale for its useful parts right on the decks of their vessels. Whale parts that would not bring a profit were cast aside, such as bone and teeth. Sailors used these materials as their canvas for everything from simple doodles to elaborately decorated works of art. Sailors would etch their images directly into the bone and then rub ink or pigment into the grooves. The epicenter of whaling was mostly south of Maine, but the craft of producing scrimshaw spread quickly among the maritime community. So much so, that a knock-off industry, using walrus tusks or resin, was born to meet the demand of the general public who wanted to display such works in their homes.

Maine Maritime Museum has a wide variety of scrimshaw on display. Most scrimshaw feature drawings of ships or women – popular subjects among the predominantly male maritime industry. The popularity of these two subjects can also be explained by the use of magazines as a source for inspiration. Many of the etched scenes featured on scrimshaw are almost identical to images found in popular magazines of the time.

Unique subjects also exist and offer a rare glimpse into the lives of sailors out at sea. A whale tooth scrimshaw on display at Maine Maritime Museum features a drawing of a figure standing among four penguins. The simple drawing falls more into the doodle category, but the subject matter is rather unusual. The identity of the figure is unknown: perhaps it is a self-portrait, a drawing of a fellow sailor, or a figure from a tall-tale. The figure holds a long rod in his hand. Is this an image of a sailor admiring the local wildlife while anchored off some remote shore? Or perhaps the figure is hunting – fresh meat was a rare luxury while on the high seas. Take a look. What do you think is going on? All scenarios share one thing in common – the experience was important enough to record for posterity. A day hanging out with penguins or catching a fresh meal would be a distinct moment that broke up the monotony of long sails.

Are you looking for something to do? Try your hand at etching your own scene.

At-Home Scrimshaw


White Paper
Black Crayon
Paper Clip

1. Use the markers to color the white paper with a variety of colors. Get creative with your design!
2. Use the black crayon to color the entire surface of the paper.
3. Fold out one end of the paper clip.
4. Use the paper clip to etch/draw your picture into the black surface.

What to draw? Here are some ideas:
1. Go outside – what wildlife do you see?
2. Draw a self-portrait.
3. What does your dream ship look like?
4. What animals would you hope to see while taking an ocean voyage?

We would love to see your drawings! Send us photos of your creations to timm@maritimeme.org

– Sarah Timm, Manager of Interpretation

Maine Maritime Museum