This scrimshaw busk, made from engraved whale bone, would have been slipped into the front of a woman’s stays to stiffen her torso and maintain a fashionable shape for her garments. This busk was likely fashioned by a sailor aboard a whaling ship. It may have been a gift for his sweetheart back home, or it could have been a personal business enterprise: sailors often sold the scrimshaw they engraved on long voyages. However, it is important to note that the maker’s identity remains a mystery: this sailor may have been either enslaved or free. This busk may have even been made by a woman: although whaling ships were predominantly male spaces, there are records of the wives of ship captains scrimshawing alongside the crew. Whatever the circumstances of its creation, this busk tells a story about the links between individual creative expression and the global exchange of commodities, connecting personal stories with broader narratives about material networks in the early nineteenth century.
The sailing ship and palm tree depicted on this busk reference global trade, reminding us that the sailors aboard this vessel were involved in the increasingly interconnected material world shaped by European imperial expansion in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The whale bone from which the busk is constructed also reminds us of the environmental impact of this expansion: the art of scrimshaw arose from the sheer amount of excess bone aboard whaling ships, testament to violence of that industry. The ever growing desire for blubber (a lubricant for machinery), spermaceti (used for lighting), and baleen (used to make everything from crinolines to buggy whips) decimated right and sperm whale populations. Both species remain endangered in the present day. For more information about the social history and environmental impact of the whaling industry, explore the online collections and exhibitions available at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
The scenes engraved on this busk also remind us that the individuals who participated in this imperial and industrial expansion interpreted their experiences in creative and meaningful ways. The temple-like building depicted here bears some resemblance to the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, built for King George IV of England in a British design style that took inspiration from Hindu religious buildings and Mughal architecture. The Royal Pavilion was a frequent subject of prints and engravings: indeed such a print may have been the visual reference point for the maker of this scrimshaw busk. The sailor who made this object was clearly reflecting on design, materials, and personal memory, sharing their journey through ink and bone.
This object tells many stories: stories of global trade networks and imperial expansion, of environmental exploitation and the formation of our modern material world, and of the individual human stories caught at their nexus.