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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Frederick Myrick “Susan’s" tooth sold for $29,375. Photo courtesy of Bonhams & Butterfields
It was Frederick Myrick’s way of telling his story about life aboard whaling ships as a 20-year-old in 1829. The tale took determination, time and skill to tell.

Without words, Myrick’s story unfolds on a delicately carved whale’s tooth. Pictured on the tooth was the whaler “Ann of London,” floating somewhere on the coast of Japan.

It was all in the etching. The ship. The whale hunt in progress. One whale already being stripped of its blubber alongside the vessel.

Toward the tip of the scrimshaw tooth Myrick engraved his signature. He also writes that the piece was made onboard the whaler ship “Susan of Nantucket” for a Mr. James Brown who was himself on board the “Ann of London.”

“Death to the living, long life to the killers. Success to sailors wives and greasy luck to whalers,” the tooth proclaims. This trademark couplet by Myrick pretty much says it all.

In hindsight it all seems gruesome. But in the 17th-19th century, whaling was considered a noble profession. Few people got rich. It was a treacherous work. Ships were lost. Voyages sometimes took years to return with their share of oil and whalebone.

Even so, there was the promise of fine odorless oil. It was oil that burned clear and bright and could maintain its lubrication in the coldest of temperatures. It was about money.

Soap was another by-product. Plus, the baleen which hung from some whale’s mouths like teeth made excellent skirt hoops, corset stays, buggy whips, pie crimpers; and fishing poles.

No one thought much about the source or the sacrifice. Scrimshaw was as an art form developed by bored whalemen. Time and teeth were plentiful. Artistry followed.

The problem of homecoming presents was solved. Scrimshaw included not only teeth but also pieces carved from sea shells, coconuts, tortoise shell and other materials.

Among scrimshanders, Myrick who served aboard the “Susan” from 1826 to 1829 is legendary. His name is associated with the very best in American scrimshaw.

At least 22 known examples of Myrick’s scrimshaw show the “Susan” in action. (In 1983, Sotheby’s sold an illustrated journal kept aboard the “Susan” for $82,500.)

Myrick’s broadside ship images are incredibly detailed. That’s his legacy.

They’re also highlighted with nautical and patriotic symbols that give them a wonderful folk quality. Add to that Myrick’s trademark verse and you have a great piece of Americana.

Records indicate that Myrick engraved all of his scrimshaw in that three-year period aboard the “Susan” and never carved any more. He spent the remaining years of his life as a farmer in New York.

Myrick could have used a pattern, a wraparound piece of onionskin paper or a very thin metal as a stencil to fashion the outline of ships onto teeth before carving them. That may account for the large numbers of scrimshaw pieces, at least 44, he produced.

On March 16, Bonhams and Butterfields, San Francisco, offered the scrimshaw piece described in its Marine auction. The piece sold for $29,375.

Here are some current values for other nautical items sold.


Brass boat binnacle compass; 16 inches high; $675.

Chronometer; Ulysse Nardin; two-day marine style; in three-tier mahogany case; circa 1949; face 3 5/8 diameter; $2,643.

Ship’s wheel; mounted on solid brass; 41 inches diameter; $2,643.

Diving helmet; U.S. Navy Mark V; brass and copper; 20th century; 20 1/2 inches high; $5,581.

Stern board; carved in relief with an American eagle flanked by stylized leaf decoration; also painted; 19th century; 19 inches by 15 inches; $9,400.

Scrimshawed whale’s teeth carving set; 2 pieces; rare; Edward Burdett artist; American; circa 1830; $61,625.

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