Scrimshaw with portrait of black soldier

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Scrimshaw with portrait of black soldier
c. 1863
Unknown Artist
Inscription on whale-tooth
5 x 2½ in.
Chicago History Museum, Gift of Mrs. Charles B. Pike
1942.67b, ICHi-52429

Look closely at this image of a whale’s tooth. It has a portrait of a black Union army soldier inscribed on its surface. Such pieces are known as scrimshaw, a popular form of folk art in the early-to-mid 1800s. Whale fishermen and sailors, men who had lots of time on their hands and little in the way of art materials, made beautiful objects from whale teeth or ivory tusks, decorating them with images of ships, coastal villages, or political slogans. They used penknives or needles to etch the surface and then rubbed dark pigment—often lampblack (from burned oil), India ink, or dyed sealing wax—into the scratches to highlight the drawing. This piece, made by an unknown artist near the North Carolina coast, dates to sometime after spring 1863, when the Union army officially began to enlist black soldiers. The artist depicted this soldier in a jaunty pose, highlighting the “US” on his belt buckle, the rifle over his shoulder, and his well-appointed uniform. Behind are camp tents, one with the Stars and Stripes flying above, emphasizing the soldier’s loyalty to the Union.

1. Why might an artist have chosen scrimshaw to make this portrait? What might the way the art was made tell us about why it was made?

2. Think about who this artist might be. Could he have been a soldier or sailor himself? A native of New England, where whaling was big business and scrimshaw art common? Or, was he (or she) instead a native of the South, inspired to make the piece by the large number of United States Colored Troops stationed on the North Carolina coast during the war?

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