The John Fitzgerald Kennedy Scrimshaw Collection: Patriotic Enthusiasm for American Maritime Prowess
Stuart Frank, New Bedford Whaling Museum
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.