255. John Hewett’s Whaler’s Cane

East Coast America, 19th century
Size: 96.5 cm long

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The cane is made from the rib of a whale, and is slightly bowed as a result. The top section of the handle is marine ivory, probably tooth of whale. The succeeding octagonal and square sections are enlivened with inlaid turtle-shell images from a whaler’s life: sperm whales, pilot whales, narwhals and sharks; naval flags, harpoons, flaying-knives, cannons and cutlasses; hearts and diamonds from a pack of cards. The faceted top has a mother-of pearl diamond set into a turtle-shell disc.

Sailors in whalers had time on their hands, for scrimshaw and the fashioning of canes in the course of their long voyages. Scrimshaw were usually for sale, but canes more for presenting a dandy image on their return to the home port. This cane is one of the dandiest of all. Whaling now seems anachronistic, except for the sushi-lovers of Japan. In the 19th century great fortunes came from whale blubber, the essential lubricant of the Industrial Revolution. Henrietta Howland, daughter of the biggest blubber baron from New Bedford, was known as the ‘Witch of Wall Street’, and was reckoned the wealthiest woman in the world when she died in the early 20th century.