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The Scrimshaw Collector

July 2024
3min read

The sea was never far from John F. Kennedy. In Boston and on Cape Cod, where he spent so many summers, il was forever at his elbow. Even the theatre of his war was the sea. When he was away from blue water, it was ever present in his heart and mind. His White House office was filled with reminders of the world of sailors and sailing ships. XVe know that in moments of great stress during the days of his Presidency, the doodlings his secretary found on his scratch-pad often tended to be sailboats.

The professional nature of his feeling for the sea is indicated by the fact that in a modest way he collected scrimshaw, that indigenous American folk art with which whalemen busied themselves during the long leisure hours at sea. Making use of whales’ teeth, whalebone, and walrus ivory, skillful whaling men carved all manner of “notions”—jagging wheels for trimming piecrusts, adjustable swifts for winding yarn, parasol handles, walking sticks, ship models, even figures from Greek mythology. Pictures, dates, ships, tender sentiments, even poetry were engraved on the scrimshaw. Lampblack or India ink and sometimes colored pigments were worked into the etchings, which were then rubbed and polished to a high gloss.

President Kennedy acquired a liking for scrimshaw before he entered the White House when Mrs. Kennedy, knowing his love of naval Americana, gave him a whale’s tooth on which had been etched an American ship under full sail. This seems to have set a pattern, for his interest was centered in whales’ teeth and walrus tusks carrying pictures of sailing ships, although he later began to add those with pictures of leading historical figures. He was very definite about what he wanted, and would have pieces sent to him on approval.

Whales’ teeth, of course, are enormous, and their large surfaces provided ample white space 011 which the sailors were able to etch likenesses, or “graphics,” not only of ships but of their sweethearts and of patriotic scenes and symbols. Herman Melville, in Moby Dick , has told us of the instruments the sailors used: “Some of them have little boxes of dentistical-looking implements, specially intended tor the skrimshandering business. But, in general, they toil with their jack-knives alone.”

It is interesting to speculate on why the President was especially partial to whales’ teeth among all the curious and varied items which make up scrimshaw. Was the whale’s tooth a reminder of the fierce battles that courageous men waged against the sea and its mighty inhabitant the whale? Clifford Ashley, the whaling historian, has pointed out that the gift of a whale’s tooth represented a “wish to present a distant friend with a trophy of the whale-hunt, a huge tooth that in actual conflict had threatened [the giver] and now stood a symbol of his success.”

John Kennedy liked success, and he regarded courage as “that most admirable of human virtues.” He sailed the waters off Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, putting in at their tidy whaling harbors. He grew up amid evidence of the great whaling days that flowered between 1820 and 1860, often called “the golden age of scrimshaw.” He saw the great houses of the whaling captains. He heard tales of the Captain Ahabs who went forth to slay the white whales. Perhaps these whales’ teeth symbolized for him something savage, relentless, and heroic.

The setting for some of President Kennedy’s scrimshaw, the desk lie used in his presidential office, was especially appropriate because ol its whaling connection. The desk was fashioned from oak timbers of H.M.S. Resolute a British warship which had been abandoned in the Arctic, salvaged by the U.S. whaler George Henry in 1885, refitted and returned to the Mritish (see “The Return of the Resolute ,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , August, 1959). At the old man-of-war’s final dismantling, Queen Victoria had the desk made and presented it Io the President of the United States “as a memorial of the courtesy and loving kindness which dictated the oiler of the gift of the Resolute

The large picture shows a section of the desk. Upon it are copies of Kennedy books bound in tooled leather, a facsimile of the President’s Xavy identity card fashioned into an ash tray, a calendar commemorating the trying days ol the Cuban crisis in October, 1962, and two pieces of scrimshaw. The tooth at left was a gift from LeMoyne Killings, his close friend and classmate at the Choate School. The piece on the right —the gift from Mrs. Kennedy—started his collection. Millings, who shared the President’s enthusiasm for scrimshaw, helped him procure much of the rest.

In the picture below is an immense tooth from a bull whale—a “real old sog,” as the whalers would say—which carries the presidential seal. It was Mrs. Kennedy who commissioned artist Milton Delano of Fairhaven, !Massachusetts, a distant and Republican relative of Kranklin D. Roosevelt, to etch the design. This painstaking, tedious task took Delano i(io hours of etching and 80 hours of polishing, but the result was a handsome Christmas present for the President in 1962.

If the youthful Kennedy dreamed of risking death at the bow of a whaleboat armed with a harpoon, he may well have compared that dream with reality as he steered his PT boat through enemy waters in the Pacific during the Second World War. Both the harpooner and the PT skipper risked sudden and violent death as they stalked their quarry. Both fulfilled the Ernest Hemingway definition of courage—grace under pressure—that Kennedy quoted in his Profiles in Courage . The link between these two roles is revealed in one particular piece in the Kennedy scrimshaw collection. The whales’ teeth are mounted on a single wooden platform. One tooth is engraved simply, “PT 109.” The other is inscribed with the battle cry of the whalers—“A dead whale or a stove boat.” During the war Skipper Kennedy, of course, survived “a stove boat” with considerable grace.

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