Scrimshaw: A popular pastime

CARA MORNINGSTAR/Sun-Gazette Gary Parks, executive director of the Lycoming County Historical Society, holds a powder horn decorated with a scrimshaw design recently at the Thomas T. Taber Museum, 848 W. Fourth St.

Throughout history, people have wanted to express themselves by making everyday items and tools more ornate. In the Lycoming County area, one method of doing that in the frontier days was using the art of scrimshaw, which allowed people to decorate tools made out of wood or ivory with intricate drawings.

Gary Parks, executive director of the Lycoming County Historical Society, said one of his favorite artifacts in the Thomas T. Taber Museum, 858 W. Fourth St., is a powder horn decorated in the art of scrimshaw.

“It’s a natural object. It’s some sort of animal horn that has been modified into a black powder horn,” he said. “A man or woman stored their blackpowder in it, cap it on both ends and keep it dry.”

He said a string would suspend the horn around the shoulder for the user to wear it like a satchel.

“When you were shooting, every now and then, you’d have to fill your gun with black powder, so this would be the supply,” he said. “And an item like this is a perfect example of scrimshaw where somebody used a knife or a sharp object to make a design on it.”

Parks said many people used to decorate objects in this scrimshaw fashion.

“You’d often see this with the Revolutionary War soldiers,” he said. “In their down time … they would do this to fancy objects up, usually with a name, date or some sort of depiction.”

The art in scrimshaw often displayed nature, people or symbols of family, he said.

However, what makes the museum’s powder horn so interesting to Parks is that it does not have a date or way to identify who created the horn.

“It is an incredible work of art with all the detailing on it, but we don’t know who made it,” he said. “We also don’t know when it was given to the museum.”

He said the art form was most popular in the early to mid 19th century as it rose in popularity with sailors and whalers who often used whale bones, walrus tusks and other items to decorate.

“The sailors were on that boat for a couple months, and so to pass the time, they would take a whale’s tooth – which is now forbidden – but they would carve it,” he said. “It was like a souvenir.”

In the Lycoming County area, more of the art appeared with items like powder flasks and animal bones, tusks and antlers with hunters and farmers.

“There weren’t as many sailors in this area as New England or perhaps Philadelphia,” he said. “I would say that the farmers made use of anything that they found.”

As far as why it was popular, Parks said it made items seem special and more valued.

“It was a period of time where clothing was muted in color. You could dye your clothing certain colors like a dark blue or a golden brown, but they didn’t have the colors that we have now,” he said. “Anything to fancy up your household was good.”

He said items like the museum’s powder horn would be hung over someone’s mantel at their home along with the hunting rifle.

“People like to embellish something that was plain,” he said. “The initial purpose was utilitarian, but along the way, everyone likes something a little fancier … and perhaps it was a competition of sort to outdo your neighbor.”

One of his favorite things to do is look for clues in items about the person who made them, and the powder horn is no exception.

“This was somebody who had very artistic talent, patience and a vivid imagination,” he said.

The image on the powder horn shows a large bear coming at a person, and Parks said it might be about a personal event or just an artistic tale.

“It looks like a farmer is out with his hunting rifle, and he’s got his bag on one side and maybe his powder horn on the other … All the sudden this bear is on its hind legs. Maybe it’s about a time he was confronted by a bear,” Parks said. “I wish I knew the whole story about it.”

He said in the image, the man appears to be defending the bear off with his arm and the talons are clear. On the other side of the horn, an eagle is displayed, which states, “the Union forever.”

“It kind of encapsulates the American experience,” Parks said. “It’s the new frontier. It definitely has a story.”