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Circa 1849

CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH SCRIMSHAW WHALE'S TOOTH

Extraordinarily unusual and fanciful subject matter for scrimshaw, possibly unique. "Whew for the Diggins" in serifed lettering at tip of obverse, above a hybrid fish/sidewheeler, with a fish's head and tail fins and a central smokestack trailing smoke. A man in a top hat and tailcoat is astride the vessel while a long-haired figure flies behind him, holding on to his coattails. Below the vessel is a herd of animals, including a turtle, flying fish, a galloping horse, a buck, does and a coyote. At the base is a mountainous desert landscape that wraps around the circumference, with a man riding an elephant on the obverse and a man riding a camel on the reverse. The elephant rider is wearing a conical cap, is smoking a pipe and has a sack marked "Gold Dust" slung over his shoulder. The camel rider is wearing a flat-peaked cap, is holding a whip in his right hand, is resting a rifle against his left shoulder and has three boxes stacked behind him, the largest box marked "California Gold". A small dog carrying a sack in its mouth walks between the camel's legs. It is believed the elephant and camel riders are moving eastward, leaving with their gold, while the other animals rush west to seek their fortunes.
Length 6.5".
Condition: Fracture at tip. Typically uneven base.
**This item is not available for international delivery. Please be aware of your local regulations regarding the sale of marine mammal parts and bid accordingly. **


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  • Provenance:
    Nina Hellman Antiques, Nantucket, Massachusetts, 2002.
    The Collection of Michael Gill.

    Illustrated:
    "Rare Subject Matter for Scrimshaw: The California Gold Rush", Antique Scrimshaw Collectors Association
    Scrimshaw Observer , Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 2019, p. 5.

    Notes:
    Elephant motifs are more common in California Gold Rush memorabilia than might be expected, given that elephants aren't native to California and weren't used in gold prospecting. However, the idiom "Seen the elephant" or "seeing the elephant", referring to the adversities and disappointment suffered by gold seekers on the trail and in the camps, was a popular one at the time and was referenced widely in diaries and periodicals. When a man had given up and headed home, or was otherwise disenchanted with his life's station, it was said he had "seen the elephant".

    The origins of the phrase are debatable but common folklore has it that a farmer who had never before seen an elephant but longed to do so encountered one in a circus parade while he was on his way to market. The farmer was delighted at the sight but his horse was terrified, overturning the cart and destroying the farmer's wares. In response the farmer said it didn't matter for he had "seen the elephant".

    There are records of whalers heading to California to try their luck with gold, especially as the whaling industry began to decline in the Mid-19th Century. Interestingly, in an 1850 letter written aboard a Nantucket whaleship bound for San Francisco and the Gold Rush, the writer, T.L. Whitaker, complaining about the voyage, says he may "see the elephant before we get to San Francisco".

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