One Hull of a history, a whale of a pastime

the-susan-tooth

Published: Tuesday 3rd January 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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We’ve teamed up with Hull Museums to bring you a weekly series of historical facts and tales. This week, we’re talking about the Susan Tooth.

In the new year, you may be looking to start a new hobby. Perhaps pick up the skill of knitting, or maybe become a star baker? Whatever you choose, it probably won’t be engraving whale teeth.

Believe it or not, many men in the 1700s and 1800s would carve intricate designs into bone or ivory, and often the teeth of whales. They were called scrimshanders. Using a sharp object, scrimshanders would chisel pictures, drawings and words onto the bone. These carvings represented their lives out at sea, as well as help to pass the time when they were away from their families.

With Hull’s rich whaling history, it’s probably no surprise that Hull Museums have one of these beautiful scrimshaws in their possession.

The Susan Tooth was made by Frederick Myrick and is part of a famous series. There are at least seven known teeth, five of which are currently in Nantucket, in the U.S. Our tooth depicts the Susan, a ship built in 1826.

One side of the piece is engraved with a drawing of a whaling ship hoisting blubber, whilst two other whaleboats drift on the horizon. Flip it over and you will see another whaling ship, with smoke billowing from it, plus three other whaleboats in the background. The Susan Tooth also features a profile of a whale and a poem that sums up the artist’s grim approach to life:

Death to the Living, Long Life to the killers,

Success to Sailors’ Wives & Greasy Luck to the Whalers.

As scrimshanders spent much of their lives on these boats, many of their works are inspired by the ocean and have a clear nautical theme. Designs range from simple sketches to more complex and adventurous artwork.

Due to the nature of the work of the whalers, most of their etches depict ships hunting for the colossal creatures. However, some simply portray ships sailing peacefully at sea, or basic animal anatomy.

Of course, myths and legends inspired the eighteenth-century seafarers too. Marine-themed stories and mythology seem to have been quite a popular choice, with many scrimshaws featuring Neptune/Poseidon, god of the sea, and Amphitrite, a sea nymph.

On top of this, Christian teachings played a huge role in the designs, with some incorporating the image of St. John the Baptist, stood at the mouth of a cave whilst pointing to Christ.

As well as taking inspiration from their work and beliefs, scrimshanders would often look towards home for ideas. Scrimshaws frequently present carvings of fashionable gentlemen and ladies, as well as loved ones and other reminders of life on land.

To take a look at The Susan Tooth, head to Hull Maritime Museum. Whilst there, catch the Bowhead installation as part of the UK City of Culture celebrations. This lifelike audiovisual projection celebrates the city’s whaling heritage, as well as showcasing the musical and design talent we have here in the city.

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Published: Tuesday 3rd January 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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