Japanese Carved Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th-20th Century

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Although there is carving on this sperm shale tooth, it is not scrimshaw by the traditional definition. Rather, it is a deeply engraved portrait of a woman by a Japanese ivory carver. The signature characters on the back of the tooth translate as “Carved by Light Happiness.”
The subject’s cape or cowl covering her head and upper body is decorated with chrysanthemums, a flower often associated with the royal family. However, her teeth are white, possibly indicating middle class origins. Fashionable upper class Japanese women had blackened teeth.
Currently not on view
Credit Line
Gift of Frederic Delano
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Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
19th-20th century
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Physical Description
scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)
tooth (overall material)
overall: 6 7/8 in x 3 3/8 in; 17.4625 cm x 8.5725 cm
National Museum of American History
Object Name
tooth, whale
scrimshaw tooth, whale