Back in the whaling days, many a Nantucketer did their holiday shopping on the open ocean or at exotic stops along the way. Undoubtedly, this made returning or exchanging presents a real hassle…even with a receipt!
‘Tis the season for giving – when hearts and minds turn to finding gifts for the special people in our lives. And while Charlie Brown might argue that the holidays have become too commercialized, few things match the expression on the face of a gift recipient who unwraps that perfect present you worked so hard to find. Despite their rough reputation, Nantucket whalers were no different when it came to bringing special gifts to their loved ones on returning from their multi-year journeys.
Of course, gift-giving was not quite so easy for those sailors, with no Main Street shops in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They had to resort to creating gifts, using what they had available to them. Fortunately, the teeth of sperm whales are ivory, which proved to be an excellent medium for creating beautiful and collectible works of art. These scrimshawed whales’ teeth are the quintessential example of the creative efforts of whalers, elaborately decorated creations that so many antiques collectors covet.
Some of the most high sought-after examples of scrimshawed teeth are those etched by legendary scrimshander Frederick Myrick, who served aboard the Nantucket whaleship Susan from 1826 to 1829. Myrick etched some thirty-five known teeth on a single whaling voyage; upon returning to Nantucket, he ceased production and no more scrimshaw was forthcoming from the talented carver. For a variety of reasons, a Susan‘s tooth created by Myrick is often thought of as the Holy Grail of engraved whale teeth. Aside from their scarcity, one reason for their value is the beauty of the detail that Myrick depicted. Whaleships’ complex rigging systems were reproduced with incredible accuracy. Additionally, each tooth is dated in chronological order, providing a valuable historical record of the Susan‘s voyage. The two Susan‘s teeth in the Nantucket Historical Association’s permanent collection are displayed in the Scrimshaw Gallery of the Whaling Museum.
Scrimshaw was not the only thing sailors brought back from their voyages. Given the faraway and exotic nature of the ports they visited, whalers were introduced to all sorts of new treasures, including seashells of varieties they had never seen on Nantucket beaches. An unknown artistic genius devised a way to create beautiful shapes and patterns using shells of differing sizes and types to create these artistic treasures, knows as sailors’ valentines. Sailors’ valentines were typically mounted within an octagonal wooden frame and featured imaginative designs incorporating geometric patterns, flowers, hearts, and even messages to their sweethearts such as “Think of Me” spelled out in shells. What woman wouldn’t swoon at the thought of her husband or boyfriend sitting on a ship, gluing individual shells to a backing to create this gorgeous gift, truly an indication of the sailor’s love for his one-and-only?
But at the risk of killing that romantic notion, those valentines were more the equivalent of the modern-day last-minute purchase at the airport gift shop. As it turns out, native women in the port of Barbados – often the last stop Nantucket whaleships made prior to the long voyage back to the island – were quite enterprising, and they discovered that the sailors would pay top dollar for their shell creations. As a result, they turned the sailors’ valentine into a cottage industry, offering up their collections of imaginative artwork for purchase. And suddenly, the Main Street of the Pacific appeared, as if by some sort of magic.
One “gift shop” in particular is thought to have been the epicenter of the sailors’ valentine production in Barbados – the New Curiosity Shop on McGregor Street in Bridgetown. Luckily for the sailors, this fact didn’t come to light until an antiques restoration specialist was repairing a sailors’ valentine in the mid-twentieth century, and discovered that the backing behind the shells was actually a piece of newspaper from Barbados, which led to further research and the ultimate discovery about the truth of the valentines’ origins. So while their stories of creation might have been fish tales, the whalers’ secrets were safe at the time and their sweethearts were none the wiser.
Regardless of purpose or source of creation, these gifts from whalers serve today as a tangible reminder of the remarkable skills those brave men possessed, as well as the cleverness and creativity that were born of years of tedium aboard ships. Although they were definitely “out of sight” of their loved ones, their loved ones were not “out of mind” for the sailors.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of N Magazine.