In the 16th century, whale oil was the fuel of the moment. The blubber of baleen, bowhead and right whales could be boiled to make a low viscosity oil, perfect for burning in oil lamps, as well as used to make soap, lubricant for machinery, and even in the production of leather! 

    Indigenous people have been hunting whales for longer than 4000 years, and whale meat is still of great importance to Canadian Inuits, and people in Norway and Japan, but its popularity in The UK and America didn’t begin to really grow until the discovery of whale oil as fuel source. Through the 17th century whale oil steadily increased in value, and men were sent off on huge  ships to hunt for whales. In the 18th century, the invention of clocks enabled the navigation of far longer journeys, prompting long whaling voyages, lasting months, sometimes years. Some of these voyages were documented in great detail in the diaries of the ships surgeons; an example of which is shown below.

    The life of the whaler on these long voyages was a lonesome and boring one. Away at sea, often waiting for months at a time between whale sightings. Sailors, especially the artisans on board, (such as the ships carpenter) began to save the hard whale byproducts of ivory, bone and baleen (a hard keratinous part of a whale’s upper jaw), and carve them into tools or decorative objects. The practice became known by American whalers as scrimshaw, a word of debatable origin, perhaps derived from the English ‘skimp’ or ‘scrimp’, meaning ‘to be frugal’ or alternatively (and a degree more cynically) from a Dutch nautical expression meaning “to waste time”.

    To make these engravings, the surface of the bone or baleen first needed to be smoothed with pumice, then the image engraved, with pocket knives or sail needles. Images were often traced from a paper stencil drawn by the sailor, or from images in magazines. Then a pigment was rubbed into the engraving to make it visible. Most commonly the pigment used was lampblack, a byproduct of burning whale oil in the lamps on ship.

    While the men were away on their whaling voyages, their sweethearts waited at home.
    From the 16th to early 19th century, women undergarments were constructed differently to today, made of linen, cotton or wool, and sometimes boned with reed, baleen or metal to maintain their shape. The boning encouraged women to maintain an upright posture, provided a layer for outer garments to be pinned to, and aided in creating the fashionable shape.

    These undergarments started as pairs of bodies in the 16th century, gradually developing into stays in the 17th and 18th century, and then to the corsets of the 19th century. Many of these undergarment designs featured a pocket at the centre-front for a busk; a long flat piece of wood, metal or baleen that would be slotted in and tied with ribbons (known as busk-points), to enforce good posture, and maintain a smooth front to the undergarments.

    The sheer number of busks that feature inscriptions associated with love, suggests that busk-giving was a commonly practiced act of courtship. An extant busk in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum (however of metal not baleen) worn by the 17th century French princess Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orleans, the Duchess of Montpensier bore the message: “How I envy you the happiness that is yours, resting softly on her ivory white breast. Let us divide between us, if you please, this glory. You will be here the day and I shall be there the night.”

    It makes sense then, that many of the lonesome sailor’s scrimshaw engravings would adorn busks, to be placed directly beside the heart of his lover far away; the perfect love token.

    Many of these extant scrimshaw busks depict women, often images of their intended recipients, as well as scenes of whaling boats, and sheaves of wheat to signify prosperity. The busks engravings were heaped with symbolism; a pictorial sometimes poetic depiction of the sailor’s longing, to rest next to the heart of his lover. Many of the scrimshaw busks that still exist today are beautifully preserved. Such an intimate item, that was either worn hidden in clothing, or tucked away in a drawer, meant that the engravings had very little exposure to light, so many have retained vibrant colours for hundreds of years.

    The busk was worn everyday, directly next to the recipients heart, almost the perfect love token. Busks would sometimes press into a woman’s torso to the point of discomfort, the imagery engraved on the busk, all the hopes and dreams of her far away sailor, a constant reminder, pressed close to her chest. 

    By the time that the most widely know literary depiction of whaling, Melville’s Moby Dick was published, in 1951, (describing the “lively sketches of whales and whaling scenes, graven by fishermen themselves on sperm whale teeth or ladies’ busks wrought out of the right whalebone”,) the folk practice of scrimshaw had all but died out. The whaling trade had begun to decline, especially following the discovery of petroleum in 1859, and imports of whale products to Britain were eventually banned in 1986.

    Women’s dress was also changing, and busks in victorian corsets developed to be made from metal in two parts, with loops and posts so that corsets could be front-fastened by the busk. As a result the giving of busks as love tokens slowly died away.

    Now, all that remains of scrimshaw practices on whaling boats is the eerie inscriptions left behind for sweethearts, longing for their lover’s safe return from their long voyage out at sea.


Clifford W. Ashley, The Yankee Whaler (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1926), 112.