The John Fitzgerald Kennedy Scrimshaw Collection: Patriotic Enthusiasm for American Maritime Prowess
Stuart M Frank, New Bedford Whaling Museum
President John F. Kennedy at his desk in the Oval Office surrounded with nautical antiques, including five scrimshaw sperm whale teeth visible on the desk (along with the famous coconut shell from his World War II PT Boat days) and two more sperm whale teeth on the sideboard in the background.
President John F. Kennedy seated at the Resolution Desk in the Oval Office with at least three and possibly four scrimshaw sperm whale teeth visible on the desk. www.whitehouse.gov
Sperm whale tooth polychrome engraved with a goddess figure combining the attributes of Liberty (with Liberty Cap and Liberty Pole) and Hope (with fouled anchor). John F. Kennedy Scrimshaw Collection, Kennedy Library
Sperm whale tooth polychrome engraved with a broadside portrait of a Constitution class American Navy frigate. John F. Kennedy Scrimshaw Collection, Kennedy Library
Scrimshaw portrait of the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts — in the Boston district that John F. Kennedy represented in Congress. The image was copied by an anonymous whaleman from an engraving by James Smillie (1807-1885) based on a drawing by Richard Parrot Mallory (1813-1890), published in Boston in 1848. John F. Kennedy Scrimshaw Collection, Kennedy Library
The “Three Presidents Tusk” (detail), a walrus tusk engraved by former whaleman N.S. Finney in San Francisco circa 1870, showing portraits of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant (in his military uniform). John F. Kennedy Scrimshaw Collection, Kennedy Library
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a naval hero and admirer of all things nautical. His oval office desk — gifted to the White House in 1880 by Queen Victoria — was fashioned from timbers salvaged from the British arctic exploration ship Resolute. Prominently displayed on the desk were pieces of his famed scrimshaw collection.
President Kennedy was an avid admirer and collector of scrimshaw. Apart from the intrinsic appeal of the intricate artworks themselves, what most attracted him were the enthusiastic, grassroots patriotism of the scrimshaw genre. He was especially partial to whaling scenes, betokening the Common Man dauntlessly hunting the Leviathan. As a dedicated patriot, an accomplished recreational sailor, and a decorated naval hero in his own right, Kennedy favored scrimshaw portraits of Founding Fathers, American presidents, War of 1812 naval heroes, and Yankee warships from the Age of Sail.
President Kennedy owned some 37 individual pieces — not a very large collection, but a cherished and curated one. Any diplomat or foreign dignitary who visited the Oval Office was likely to be treated to the president’s insightful tour of these evocative relics of American naval victories and seafaring prowess, promoting foreign relations through antique American works of art. Some pieces were gifts to the president from foreign potentates, including a whaleship model from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, but most of the president’s avowed favorites were the ones that were gifts from Jacqueline.
In the end, one piece stands out as testimony to scrimshaw as a symbol of President Kennedy’s own life — a Christmas gift commissioned by Jackie in 1962: a sperm whale tooth engraved by a highly skilled Delano relation of FDR with a polychrome image of the Seal of the President of the United States, which in accordance with Jacqueline’s wishes was buried with the martyred President at Arlington National Cemetery in November 1963.
Stuart M. Frank may be the only Forum speaker we’ve ever had who has been inducted into the Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame. Dedicated to American Traditional Music, he recorded Sea Chanties and Forecastle Songs for Smithsonian Folkways, wrote three books about Pirate Songs and Ballads of American Sailors, and along with his wife Dr. Mary Malloy, has performed concerts of traditional sea ballads and pirate songs on four continents.
Dr. Frank is the Senior Curator Emeritus of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Executive Director Emeritus of the Kendall Whaling Museum, and the founder and director of the Scrimshaw Forensics Laboratory. A prolific author, he has written Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved: Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Herman Melville’s Picture Gallery, Dictionary of Scrimshaw Artists, More Scrimshaw Artists, Scrimshaw and Provenance and Classic Whaling Prints.
A native of New York City, he was educated at Wesleyan, Yale, and the Munson Institute of Maritime Studies; he holds a Ph.D. from Brown, and is an elected Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society. He has taught at Brown, MIT, and elsewhere; and has been a consultant, advisor, and visiting Fellow at museums in the USA, Canada, eastern and western Europe, Australia, and Japan.