Scrimshaw Whale Tooth

Whale tooth, c1815
Gift of Jon Washburn
Dims: H 5 ¾” x W 2 ¾”

Scrimshaw is an art form that emerged during the late 18th and early 19th centuries on whaling ships. With access to whale teeth, bones, and other remnants from their catches, whaling crews transformed their spare time during long voyages into moments of artistic expression. Through intricate carvings on these materials, sailors crafted remarkable scrimshaw artworks as mementos and gifts for their loved ones back on shore. Scrimshaw designs embraced a vast array of subjects, ranging from meticulously detailed ship-portraits and evocative whaling scenes to patriotic imagery, naval depictions, symbolic figures, and portraits of revered individuals.

A scrimshaw artist is called a scrimshander. When using a whale tooth, the scrimshander would first spend several hours polishing the raw tooth down to a smooth surface, and then start working on the design to carve. Some designs were hand-drawn but sailors with little or no artistic talent could carve highly detailed scenes with the pinprick technique. The scrimshander would take an existing image and paste or dampen it and wrap it on the polished surface of the whale tooth. The scrimshander would then push a sharp pin through the lines of the image, and remove it, leaving dots on the surface. He then would engrave the image by connecting the pinprick dots and rubbing black soot or colored pigments into the lines.

This piece of scrimshaw on a whale tooth bears the image of Lieutenant John Templer Shubrick, a decorated naval hero, and a 3-masted ship, perhaps the Epervier, a ship he commanded. The image of Lieutenant Shubrick is the same as the image in the Thomas Gimbrede engraving and a close look at the whale tooth shows that the pinprick technique was used by this scrimshander for the portrait. The ship appears to have been engraved by hand.

John Templer Shubrick (1788-1815) was born on Bull’s Island, South Carolina, to Mary Branford and Colonel Thomas Shubrick. He hailed from a family with a strong military tradition, as his father was a colonel in the Revolutionary Army and his three brothers served in the Navy. Shubrick joined the Navy as a midshipman 20 June 1806, serving aboard the USS Chesapeake during its action with the British ship HMS Leopard.

He remained on the Chesapeake under Captain Stephen Decatur until 1808. On 28 May 1812 Shubrick was commissioned as a lieutenant and served on the USS Constitution during its famous escape from the British fleet in July 1812 and the capture of the British ships HMS Guerriere and HMS Java in August and December of 1812.

On January 6, 1813, Shubrick was transferred to the USS Hornet and served during the capture of the British sloop-of-war Peacock on February 24, 1813. He was later transferred to the USS President and was aboard when it was captured by a British fleet on January 15, 1815. Shubrick was taken as a prisoner to Bermuda and was released at the end of the war.

For his contributions to the capture of the Guerriere, Java, and Peacock, Shubrick received three silver medals and votes of thanks from Congress. South Carolina also expressed its gratitude by giving him a vote of thanks and a sword.

In May 1815, Shubrick sailed as the executive officer of the USS Guerriere to Algiers, under Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr., with the mission to stop the harassment of American shipping by the Dey of Algiers. Guerriere joined with Epervier, Constellation, and Ontario in capturing the 46-gun frigate Mashuda.

Subsequent to the signing of a treaty with the Dey of Algiers, Shubrick was assigned to command the Epervier and bring a copy of the treaty and some captured flags to the United States. The Epervier was sited sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar on 14 July 1815 but was never heard from again, lost at sea with all hands aboard, including Shubrick. He was 26 years old.

In 1814, Lieutenant Shubrick married Elizabeth Matilda Ludlow of New York, and their son, Edmund, was born in 1815. After Shubrick’s death, the care of Edmund was entrusted to Shubrick’s mother, Mary Branford Shubrick, according to a family history published in the Transactions of the Huguenot Society of South Carolina by Shubrick’s nephew, Rev. Paul Trapier.

Lt. Shubrick’s character and service to his country were described in an 1816 “Letter to the Editor of the Naval Chronicle” in The Analectic Magazine, (See Additional Information below) certainly a person worthy of being honored in scrimshaw art.


DeFeo, Anthony 2021, Scrimshaw: True American Art, Daily Art Magazine accessed July 2023, Scrimshaw: True American Art | DailyArt Magazine | Art History Stories

Trapier, Paul. Notices of Ancestors and Relatives, Paternal and Maternal, Transactions of the Huguenot Society of South Carolina, Vol 58, 1953

Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, accessed July 2023, DANFS (

Naval History and Heritage Command, NH45554 Lieutenant John Templer Shubrick, accessed July 2023,  NH 45554 Lieutenant John Templer Shubrick, USN (

USS Constitution Museum, accessed July 2023, John Templer Shubrick – USS Constitution Museum)

United States Navy Department. A General Register of the Navy and Marine Corps of the United States,1848, p510.


Additional Information

Curriculum Connections

This Scituate Historical Society Collections Highlight connects with the following Massachusetts State Curriculum Frameworks:

History and Social Science Framework

Grade 5: United States History to the Civil War and the Modern Civil Rights Movement

Topic 4: The growth of the Republic

HSS.5.T4.03 Describe the causes of the War of 1812 and how events during the war contributed to a sense of American nationalism.

a. British restrictions on trade and impressment

b. Major battles and events of the war, including the role of the USS Constitution, the burning of the Capitol and the White House, and the Battle of New Orleans

HSS.5.T4.04 On a map of New England, locate cities and towns that played important roles in the development of the textile and machinery industries, whaling, shipping, and the China trade in the 18th and 19th centuries and give examples of the short- and long-term benefits and costs of these industries.

Visual Arts | Responding

7-8.V.R.07 Perceive and analyze artistic work. Analyze elements of a work that are indicative of the historical or cultural context in which it was created.

7-8.V.R.08 Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work. Explain how an artistic work was influenced by the culture or historical context in which it was created.

7-8.V.R.10 Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art. Describe and demonstrate influences of personal artistic style and preferences in visual arts.\

7-8.V.R.11 Relate artistic ideas and works to societal, cultural and historical contexts to deepen understanding. Identify visual ideas from a variety of cultures connected to different historical populations.