Sailors’ Delights

Sailors’ Delights

maritime crafts
Gifts from the sea, clockwise from top left: scrimshawed and carved whales’ teeth, macramé beckets, a walrus-tusk cribbage board, a wood-and-walrus-tusk rolling pin, a carved wood-and-coconut-shell dipper, and scrimshawed whalebone corset busks. Photographed by David Butler.

Two hundred years ago, mariners’ hands were rarely idle, as evidenced by the wealth of intriguing objects they created, appraiser John Bottero says. 

Folk art encompasses articles made from common materials by common people. Sometimes the term “outsider art” is used to emphasize the non-professional, one-off nature of the works. Applying these definitions to 19th-century maritime crafts opens up a fascinating world of items fashioned from exotic materials by sailors of all skill levels. Often during idle hours at sea, these men would create decorative wood and shell implements and adorn possessions, such as storage chests, with inlays and macramé handles known as beckets. Macramé was also used to enhance a variety of shipboard fixtures.

Some of the most notable pieces of nautical folk art were produced on whaling ships, some of which sailed from Maine ports. Whalebone and ivory from whales’ teeth, as well as walrus and narwhale tusks, were turned into trinket boxes, corset busks, game boards, rolling pins, walking canes, knife handles, and more. Delicate engraving, known as scrimshaw, enlivened many items, including whole whales’ teeth.

Collectors throughout the world actively pursue sailors’ handiwork, whose value is tied to artist proficiency and varies greatly, from a few hundred to thousands of dollars apiece. No matter what an item’s worth, owners can take pride in possessing a one-of-a-kind work — and a piece of the region’s maritime history.

John Bottero is the vice president of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries. Constantly in pursuit of incredible finds, he sees dozens of people each week on Thomaston’s Free Appraisal Day and travels the state helping Mainers bring their collections and valuable heirlooms to market.