Think of a bone. The image that usually comes to mind is a hard, white tube with knobby ends. In many instances, that is an accurate perception; but there are major exceptions that make bone even more interesting and valuable, especially for repurposing after the original owner passes on. A great example is a sperm whale’s jaw bone, which may be 25 feet long. Conical teeth the size of drinking glasses stud the forepart and often have been decorated with scrimshaw. Perhaps less well recognized is the multipurpose value of the hind part of the leviathan’s mandible, where it contacts the skull. There it is broad, flat, and thin and has been used for centuries for fabricating objects both functional and aesthetic. Today we might start a similar project using poster board or a sheet of plastic or canvas.

Sperm whale jawbones. Left, Harvard Museum of Natural History. Right, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Vikings were perhaps the first to take advantage of this smooth, durable crafting material and cut the jawbone into dragon-headed trays. Their purpose remains unknown. Speculation suggests that these plaques were food trays or cutting boards or even forms around which to wrap clothing to limit wrinkling. Inuits crafted jawbones into snow knives and used them to trim large blocks of snow that then fit snuggly together to form igloos.

Left: Viking plaque 8.7″ x 7.1″, British Museum. Right: Inuit snow knives, Smithsonian

Nineteenth century whalers were the hands-down champions at repurposing the sperm whales’ jaw bones. On their multiyear voyages, the seafarers had easy access to these bones, which would otherwise be discarded, and they had ample free time on their return trips from the whaling grounds to develop and improve their artistic skills.

In 1843, Joseph Bogart Hersey, third mate on the whaling schooner Esquimaux out of Providencetown, Massachusetts, wrote, “This afternoon we commenced sawing up the large whale’s jaws that we captured in company with [the schooner] Belle Isle on the 14th; the bone proved to be pretty good and yielded several canes, fids, and busks. I employed a part of my time in engrav[ing] or flowering two busks. Being slightly skilled in the art of flowering; that is drawing and painting upon bone; steam boats, flower pots, monuments, balloons, landscapes &c &c &c; I have many demands made upon my generosity, and I do not wish to slight any; I of course work for all.”

Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick (1851), noted, “… in general, they toil with their jack-​knives alone; and, with that almost omnipotent tool of the sailor, they will turn you out anything you please, in the way of a mariner’s fancy.”

Left to right: ditty box, work basket, violin, chair, all from New Bedford Whaling Museum. Right: humidor, Pinterest.

The purposes for most of the crafted objects are immediately obvious, but not so for semi-rigid strips that lonely whalers meticulously inscribed and gave to their loved ones on their return home. These were busks, which were inserted into a pocket on the front of nineteenth century corsets to keep undergarments upright and straight. Held close to his loved-one’s heart, the busk also served as a remembrance of love and devotion during the seafarer’s next long absence.

New Bedford Whaling Museum

In modern times, gifts of hand-inscribed busks have morphed into ones of roses and chocolate as expressions of Valentine sentiments. Yet they are not nearly as personal, endearing, or enduring as whalebone busks. Could they make a comeback if corsets again became fashionable?

Happy Valentine’s Day. Please encourage your Valentines and social media contacts to subscribe to

Assorted busks, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *