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A Whale of a Tooth: 19th Century Naval Scrimshaw


Where does the time go? I know that my writing schedule has been severely impacted by home and work priorities (this column is nowhere near being a day job for me) and other facets of life routinely draw my attention away from my love of military history. However, my interest never truly wanes or strays very far from this passion and yet when I checked to see that my last posting was more than three months ago, I realized that I need to get back on the horse and get the creative juices stirred.

I can’t blame writer’s block or submit any grandiose excuses for not writing. I merely de-prioritized my militaria collecting during the 90-day time span. Though my acquisition pace has slowed during the last half-year, I only suggest that I’ve become hyper selective about what I add to the expanding pile. With the smattering of pieces coming through the door, I found myself asking the question, “what should I write about?”

Not wanting to overload the Veteran’s Collection with an overwhelming theme, I have been putting forth an effort to balance the various subjects. My best efforts aside, I find that my posts are skewed toward the Navy (where I served) with some of those topics focusing on a specific ship. Regardless, after a few moments of careful consideration, I decided that instead of talking about a new (to my collection) piece, I would spend some time with something that eluded me a few years ago (the subject just happens to be in a few of my wheelhouses). Missing out on this piece has haunted me since the online auction bidding surpassed my meager budget.

Without going into detail as to what fuels my interests (read my About page for those details), I’ll jump right into today’s topic.

I can bet that half of those who read this column (all four of you) are familiar with the widely popular PBS television production, Antiques Roadshow and have viewed episodes where 19th century maritime folk art objects have been viewed and appraised. One of the most popular types of that particular folk art is scrimshawed marine mammal bones (or teeth/tusks). Needless to say that along with popularity (and scarcity) of these pieces comes an array of reproductions and outright fakes onto the market. Applying the caution of a mariner skirting the shoal waters, one needs to be very knowledgeable before navigating into these waters.

USS Vincennes Scrimshaw

The ship design in the center is clearly that of an 1820s United States Navy sloop of war (source: eBay image).

When this item was listed in an online auction, I was shocked that it lasted without being taken down by the host as genuine scrimshaw violates their established policies that forbid the sale of items made from protected animals. In reading the seller’s description, I noted that it was being sold as a piece that was manufactured from man-made materials rather than from a whale bone or tooth. However, in examining the photos of the piece, it was clearly NOT sourced from synthetics, though I couldn’t be certain without a hands-on inspection. Hoping to get clarification from the seller, I resorted to asking specific questions only to be rebuffed with a message that reiterated the details in the listing’s description.

USS Vincennes Scrimshaw

The inscription reads, “United States Exploring Expedition, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, 1838 | Antarctica | 1842. USS Vincennes” (source: eBay image).

The subject of the scrimshaw artwork is what drew me to the piece from the beginning. The illustrations on either side of the “whale tooth” were made to commemorate the United States very first foray into global exploration. The U.S. Exploring Expedition was led by the US Navy’s polarizing figure (of that era), LT Charles Wilkes from 1838-1842 and consisted of men from several biological and geological scientific disciplines along with illustrators, geographical surveyors and naval officers and men aboard six US Navy vessels – the flagship being the sloop of war, USS Vincennes.

On one side of the tooth is a rather elaborate design of the three-masted sloop (a port-side view) that is centered among an array of flags with an eagle perched above an American-themed shield holding arrows and an olive branch which is very reminiscent of 19th century designs. On the reverse is an unrolled scroll that appears to be a banner with the US Ex. Ex, Wilkes’ name, the dates and “Antarctica” emblazoned across. Immediately beneath the scroll is the name of the expedition’s flagship, “USS Vincennes.”

I grappled with deciding to bid on the object. There was no definitive manner in which to determine the authenticity or if it was, in fact, a mocked up piece of plastic. I was left to weigh all of the evidence and draw conclusions (aside from the fact that the seller stated that it wasn’t the real thing which could easily be that person’s subverting of the online auction site’s rules).

USS Brooklyn Scrimshaw

An example of an 19th Century whale’s tooth scrimshaw depicting the USS Brooklyn (source: dukeriley.info)

Scrimshawed Whale's tooth.

Showing a vintage whale’s tooth scrimshaw mounted to a cork base. Note the similar themes (to the USS Vincennes tooth) and the odd number of stripes on the shield (source: Wikimedia).

The cons

  • The tooth is very bright for an early 19th century piece. Most scrimshawed items tend to yellow with time. After 170 years, the bone/tooth material should be much darker.
  • Taking a look at the artwork design, what gave me reason to pause is that the artist departed from the widely used American themes within his design. The eagle’s shield is lacking the correct number of stars and stripes (shown are three and 11, respectively).
  • The wooden base (which appears to be of dark walnut) that the tooth is mounted to seems to be fairly modern; almost new, conditionally.
Early 19th century flag

This early 19th century flag depicts the three-starred shield and 9 stripes yet the eagle faces his right shoulder (source: NAVA).

The pros

  • As someone who, for the last two decades, has been searching for anything pertaining to any of the US Navy warships that bore the same name, this is the only scrimshaw that I have encountered that had any reference to the ship or the expedition. Uniqueness is definitely a plus in that if someone was going to bother manufacturing fakes of this nature, there would, most-likely be multiple examples appearing on the market.
  • The cons that I listed above can be explained. The artist may not be as detail-oriented when it comes to the thirteen stars and stripes. However, the direction that the eagle’s head faces is accurate for the time (facing its left shoulder). The illustration of the ship is very accurate to that of the 1820s U.S. sloop of war (designed by Samuel Humphreys) which leads me to believe that the artwork is correct to the period.
  • The base could have been merely a replacement or an addition by a subsequent owner.
  • The piece may have been stored in a cool, dark location for most of its existence, which could possibly account for the lack of typical aging effects.
USS Vincennes Scrimshaw

The walnut base appears to be a fairly recent addition as it shows no signs of aging (source: eBay image).

After several days of careful consideration, I decided that it was worth a nominal investment risk and configured my bid snipe program accordingly. Within a few hours of the auction close, the bidding (from multiple parties) surpassed my maximum and I watched this beautiful piece of scrimshaw slip into someone else’s hands for several hundred dollars above my limit. It seems that other collectors had arrived at the same conclusion that I had and the benefit of owning such a nice piece far exceeded the risk that it might not be authentic.

For me, this whale tooth was not to be.

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USS Vincennes Under the Microscope


Those who know me on a personal basis understand my affinity for a specific U.S. naval warship. Technically speaking, that interest lies with four combatant vessels, all of which were named to honor the site of a Revolutionary War battle (more accurately, a campaign) that ended the British assaults on the remote Western colonial front. That location in present-day Southwestern Indiana would later become the seat of the Northwest Territorial government in the town of Vincennes.

USS Vincennes - Currier

Colored lithograph published by N. Currier, 2 Spruce Street, New York City, 1845 (source: Naval Historical Center).

My connection to this ship’s name extends all the way back to the place of my birth which was also the location of the commencement of an extensive 1840 charting survey of Puget Sound (in Washington State). Locations and geographical features surrounding my home were named by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (commander of the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842) and members of his team when the sloop of war, USS Vincennes (along with other ships of the expedition) was in the Sound. I can even cite some Baconesque connections with great, great, great-grandfather who served in the Ringgold Light Infantry (after he was discharged from his cavalry regiment following a disabling injury). The Ringgold name was inherited from Samuel Ringgold, Expedition-member Cadwalader’s older brother (yes, I realize that this is very convoluted).

My personal connection (to the ships named Vincennes) was solidly established when I was assigned to the pre-commissioning crew of the CG-49. During the first several months (leading toward the 1985 commissioning date), like many of my shipmates, I was exposed to the history of the ship’s namesake and established personal relationships with veterans of the WWII cruisers of the same name. Collecting items from “my” ship was purely functional in that I was proud to purchase t-shirts, lighters, ball caps and other items (from the ship’s store) that bore the name or the image of the ship’s crest. Many of the items I purchased in those days proudly remain in my collection while a few did manage to fade away.

I am constantly on the lookout for artifacts that are connected to these ships (the heavy cruiser: CA-44, the light cruiser: CL-64) and occasionally, some quality pieces (beyond the plethora of typical postal covers) surface on the market. Fortunately, I have been successful in obtaining a few of these items, though the competition has been fierce. The ones that got away were quite stunning.

William Dunlop Brackenridge_(young)

William D. Brackenridge was the assistant botanist for the U.S. Exploring Expedition serving aboard the USS Vincennes from 1838-1842.

The infrequency of appearances of pieces from the two WWII cruisers pales in comparison to anything related to the 19th Century sloop-of-war. During the past decade of searching for anything related to the USS Vincennes, I have only seen one item connected to the three-masted warship. While searching a popular online auction site, a rather ordinary, non-military item showed up in the search results of one of my automated inquiries. The piece, a wood-cased field microscope from 1830-1840, bore an inscription that connected it to the assistant botanist of the United States Exploring Expedition, William Dunlop Brackenridge.

Admittedly, I am not in the least bit interested in a field microscope as militaria collector, but the prospect of owning such a magnificent piece that would have been a fundamentally important tool used during the United States first foray into exploration was an exhilarating thought. At its core, the goal of the (1838-1842) U.S. Ex. Ex. was to chart unknown waters, seek the existence of an Antarctic continent and discover and document unknown species of flora and fauna. Brackenridge’s field microscope would have been a heavily used item as he and his assistants would most-certainly examine the various characteristics of plant species at a microscopic level.

Brackeridge Box

The box appears to be missing some of the securing hardware which would help to hold the lid closed (source: eBay image).

Authenticity and provenance is certainly a major concern when purchasing a piece like this and the listing made no mention of any materials or means to verify the claim. However, in searching for similar microscopes, there was sufficient comparative evidence to support the time-frame in which the Brackenridge instrument was made. The box and the engraving seems to be genuinely aged and appears to resemble what one would find from a 170 year old example.

William D Brackenridge Microscope Box

The box for the field microscope is inscribed with “Property of W. D. Brackenridge U.S.S Vincennes 1840″(source: eBay image).

In my opinion, the investment was well-worth the risk and I was poised to make my maximum bid (invariably draining my discretionary savings) knowing that the closing price would exceed what I could ultimately afford. The auction closed with the winning bid ($810.58) exceeding my funds by a few hundred dollars, though I suspect that the winner had a far higher bid in place to guarantee victory.

Brackenridge Microscope and Box

Showing the eye-piece perspective of the microscope and the wooden box (source: eBay image).

Brackenridge Field Microscope

The microscope sets securely into the accompanying wooden box (source: eBay image).

I am a realist yet remain hopeful that I won’t have to wait another decade before another sloop-of-war piece comes to market.