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Scrimshaw: Young Mother In Mourning

by Douglass Moody (12/12/08).

Image 1 - Mother in MourningInfant mortality in antebellum (pre-Civil War) America was quite high, especially in tight-knit New England cities, where contagions could be easily spread from child-to-child. Poor diet, scarce & crude medical care, extreme weather, and other factors contributed to childhood deaths that often approached 1 in 4, before the age of 10.

Several studies document & graph these numbers. See:
http://www.cairn.info/article_p.php?ID_ARTICLE=ADH_101_0033
http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~fe2r/papers/mortality.pdf

Based on the woman’s dress, this antebellum era scrimwork depicts a young mother in shock, handkerchief in hand, dressed in mourning black, alongside the coffin of her infant, also draped in black. By the look of this woman’s young age, the deceased may have been an only child.

The original printed image for this scrimwork may have been in a local newspaper, or a popular magazine. I doubt that the scrimshander knew this woman, but speculate the scene hit close to home, reminding him of the grief experienced by someone that he knew. Most scrimwork by whalers were copied directly from printed images in magazines, especially popular woman’s fashion journals. Free-hand scenes often related to the whaling trade, or exotic locals visited by whalers. Occasionally, scenes of home, or portraits of loved ones were attempted, based on memory only, as keepsake photos were not available to the average sailor.

Image 2 - Mother in Mourning (cropped)This image was “stipple” (pinhole) outlined through the paper original, onto the tooth, then the detail filled-in via scribing. Stipple transfer was a popular technique used by non-artist scrimshanders, who copied images from newspapers, magazines, and paper flyers.

Tooth is 4.5-inch & 5.2-ounce.

This tooth is in my WorthPoint “Antique Scrimshaw” collection

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