Mermaid on a Powder Horn

Before the internet, Jim collected thousands of things, out of curiosity and a love of history. Passion + scholarship. A good eye + infinite patience.

I don’t have the eye. I don’t have the obsession. I’m the organizer + conservator. “You can’t just pile up stuff like this!” “What the hell is in this drawer?”

But I’m easily seduced. Jim’s eclectic tastes become my little learning projects.

Right now, I’m looking one of his nine antique powder horns–cattle horns, capped at the ends to carry black powder for flintlock muskets. They date from colonial America, through the French and Indian Wars. (By the Civil War, the black gun powder was stored in metal flasks.)

When the whaling industry boomed in off the island of Nantucket, early in American history, bored sailors began to scratch drawings into whale’s teeth and the art of scrimshaw was born. The craft of “scrimshandering” was expanded to cattle horns, heated and shaved to achieve a smooth, translucent surface.

Powder horn, about 14 inches long

Some engraved powder horns were clearly engraved by artists; the rest, by bored soldiers and their pocket knives.

The one I’m looking at was, I’m sure, engraved by a skilled amateur. But instead of depicting a soldier’s story, it tells a mariner’s tale.

I saw the woman labeled “MAIRMAID” first, then of course “BARING STRAITS” and “NORTH SEA.”

“BARING STRAITS” and a sailing ship

What was the story? I decided to copy what the mariner scratched into the surface, now darkened with age.

I copied every incised line I could make out on the old surface. The surprise was discerning the whaleboat–faint, but clear–four men with oars, one in front (I think) throwing his harpoon.

My copy of what the mariner engraved

When was commercial whaling a thing in the Bering Strait? John Bockstoce suggests 1820s and 1830s was the peak.

from a bookplate

The mermaid is, of course, a common mythical character among sailors and fishermen. What I didn’t know is that they are commonly depicted with comb and mirror. There meanings are suggested at

“The combs are made out of fish bone — which sailors once believed could be used to predict or delay storms at sea. This magical instrument is fashioned into an item culturally reserved for the feminine, and so it shows the occult powers of women. The mirror is slightly different, offering a note of self-reflection and, again, intuition. (Mirrors are also commonly connected to the moon, yet another symbol of intuition.)”

The NORTH SEA? The leaf? This mariner’s full story will remain a mystery for now.


John, Bockstoce, “From Davis Strait. to Bering Strait: The Arrival of the Commercial
Whaling Fleet in North America’s Western Arctic,” Arctic, VOL. 37, NO. 4 (Dec 1984), p. 528-532.

Philip Zea, “Keeping Their Powder Dry,” New England Antiques Journal, August 2009.

David Ehrig, “He’s Having Whale of a Time with Ancient Scrimshanders’ Art Around the Homestead,” The Morning Call, April 3, 1988.

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