The art of scrimshaw originated with American whalers in the early nineteenth century. Sailors used sharp tools to etch designs into sperm whale teeth, baleen, or ivory from walrus tusks, then they rubbed ink or soot into the grooves to bring their designs to life.
This object, however, has been made from the horn of a land animal, rather than from part of a marine mammal; and, instead of being purely decorative, it was made to serve a function.
The base is made from wood, with the name “M. Mackay” and the location “Fort York” carved into it. York Factory, along the coast of Hudson Bay in what is now northern Manitoba, was often called Fort York, and the designs suggest that the object is from the northern HBC post rather than the historical fortification of 1812 in what is now Toronto.
A search through the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives revealed that a Malcolm Mackay from Inverness, Scotland, joined HBC in 1841 and came to York Factory before moving on to Fort Vancouver the following year.
Did Mackay carve this design, or did he commission it from someone else? What might a container like this have been used for? Unlike many artifacts in the HBC Museum Collection, this one leaves us with more questions than answers.
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