In my search for unique vintage kitchen tools, I got this fantastic
scrimshaw pastry crimper (I actually bought it from a collector friend
of mine). I secretly have a crush on this little sailor. He is so
handsome and fine-featured. And even though I'm sure that it is
perfectly functional as a tool (though I haven't actually crimped any
pastry with it), to me it is much more valuable as a piece of art. I
haven't had it evaluated for authenticity, age or it's provenance
(hello Antiques Roadshow!), but the basic web only research I've done
about it has gotten me thinking about the (possible) history of this
specific artifact, the tools we use to make food, and how this object's
history relates to what's going on in the food industry right now.
Scrimshaw is the folk art and craft of carving objects out of or etching drawings into the various byproducts of the whaling industry, including teeth (whale and walrus) and bone. Scrimshaw was originally practiced by sailors on long whaling voyages - some of which lasted for years. It was the "pastime of lonely and often dispirited seamen far from home". The most common forms of scrimshaw were nautical scenes etched into whale teeth (JFK was apparently a big collector of this type of scrimshaw), but scrimshanders (makers of scrimshaw) also carved many useful and decorative objects such as napkin rings, bodkins, canes, toys, spoons and pastry crimpers (also often referred to as jagging wheels) and other kitchen implements. I think that the crimper I have is made from whale ivory, partly carved, partly constructed from carved pieces. I'd like to think that my sailor pastry crimper, if authentic, was made by a bored and homesick sailor as a gift for his wife back home in Massachusetts, who used it to make beautiful fruit pies.
From the early 18th through the mid 19th century, the American whaling industry grew to be one of the preeminent industries in the country. At it's peak, reached in the mid 1800's, there were 736 whaling vessels registered under the American flag in the 'Yankee' fleet alone. Hundreds of whaling voyages each year brought back hundreds of thousands of gallons of whale oil derived from whale blubber. Whale oil was used as lamp oil, in lighthouses, to light city streets and to make candles. Sperm whale oil, oil derived from the waxy substance "spermaceti" found in the head of sperm whales was even more valuable and useful because it burned much cleaner and had a wider range of uses including soap, cosmetics, pharmaceutical compounds and specialized machine lubricants.
Other whale byproducts including teeth (ivory), bones, ambergris (a flammable and waxy substance found in sperm whale digestive tracts) and whale baleen, (flexible but sturdy keratin plates baleen whales use for feeding - the 'plastic of the 1800's') were harvested and used to create multiple different products including tools, mens collar stays, women's corsets, toys and utensils. Scrimshaw pieces were also traded and bartered in ports of call around the globe.
Most species of whales are now either considered endangered or vulnerable due to this history of commercial whaling. Whaling continued in various forms through into the 20th century when the International Whaling Commission was set up in 1946 to "provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus "make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry," but their success and influence is debatable. Greenpeace regularly documents Japanese whaling boats that are purportedly catching whales for 'scientific' purposes.