Nancy Chase: Scrimshander
by Margaret Carroll-Bergman
Photography by Nicole Harnishfeger
|Chase’s hands know the ins and outs of this delicate trade, and are hard at work carving a sperm whale
She has carved everything from alligators to quahogs, even the presidential seal of the United States for the top of Nancy Reagan’s lightship basket.
“Reagan had not yet been elected president,” said Chase of the commission she had to carve in secret. “If he lost the election, I was to somehow change the carving.”
Chase’s carvings document the island’s emotional landscape. A tribute to a mother is etched into the band of a hand-carved ivory bracelet. A small angel, which Chase carved 45 years ago, was recently returned to her studio by its 94-year-old owner, who wants Chase to make a duplicate carving so she can give it to her granddaughter. A basket-top with a rose-covered cottage on it was ordered by a husband for his wife for their wedding anniversary.
The walls, bookcases, floors and even the Nantucket lightship baskets hanging from the rafters of Chase’s ceiling are layered with a fine covering of dust from 19th and 20th century whale bone.
In addition to her own carvings – mostly of whales, shells, mice, horseshoe crabs, seagulls and anything else that evokes Nantucket – Chase has an interesting collection of oddities which include a whale’s jawbone, a whale’s delicate ivory inner-ear, and 19th-century carvings of Dickens’ literary characters.
“Look at the hand-work on the chain of the watch fob,” said Chase, pointing to a Mr. Pickwick figure. “That was difficult to do.”
Chase uses the high-speed drills of a dentist, small power saws and hand-held instruments to perform her craft. Once an island dentist asked her if she would be interested in making dental plates, but Chase was born to carve.
As a child, she carved in wood. She switched to whale ivory in the early 1950s when working as a soda jerk at Coffin’s Pharmacy.
“William Coffin had some teeth and asked me to carve sperm whale pins for the tourists,” she said.
Chase still has the first piece of ivory given to her by her grandfather Warren Benson Chase, a whaling captain, in her studio. Carved into it is a relief of the map of Nantucket. Chase carved the map for her mother’s Jose Reyes lightship-basket top in 1954.
In 1960, Reyes, a famous Nantucket lightship-basket maker, consigned Chase to carve 300 three-inch sperm whales for basket tops. Reyes paid her $7 a whale and supplied the ivory.
“In the meantime, it took all winter, summer and fall, to complete the order,” said Chase, who was also working full-time at Pacific Bank on Main Street. “I quit the bank in 1962 because I was not allowed to take a week off to finish my order. At that time, there were very few year-round jobs and it was risky to strike out on one’s own, but I did.
I started my own business.”
Chase followed in the footsteps of Charlie Sayle, who was the first islander to put ivory on a Nantucket lightship basket and who made carvings for Reyes from 1949 to 1955. From 1955 to 1960, Aletha Macy carved for Reyes, and Chase carved for him from 1960 until his death in 1979.
If there is a Grand Dame in the world of scrimshaw, an art form which originated on long whaling voyages and was relegated to the world of men, it has to be Chase.
“The early whalers who carved ivory were also called scrimshanders,” said Chase, who sits on the board of the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum and the Nantucket Historical Association. She is also proud of her association with Hospice Care of Nantucket.
Chase has carved almost every whale-ivory award and plaque on-island. Her work includes a set of women’s hands getting ready to bait a hook for the Anglers’ Club women’s fishing trophy, a swordfish for its men’s trophy, a daffodil for a Nantucket Garden Club award, the Nantucket Cottage Hospital logo, and the United States Coast Guard insignia.
Most of Chase’s ivory was purchased 45 years ago or more.
“You can’t buy the materials anymore,” said Chase. “I paid $3.25 a pound for whales’ teeth in the 1960s. Today it would be over $1,000 a pound.”
People give her gifts of ivory from exotic locations. One piece of petrified ivory was excavated from a glacier in Alaska. Chase has a basket full of these odd bits and pieces, ivory she’ll never carve.
“How to tell the difference between ivory and plastic?” considers Chase, who has been asked the question a thousand times. “Plastic warms to the touch, while ivory remains cool. A whale’s tooth is two-toned and dense. Whale bone is very dense. A plastic tooth goes into a certain depth, while an ivory tooth goes into infinity.”
Since ivory is scarce, Chase uses every scrap.
“I tried to do something different from the whale,” said Chase, remembering that first year she had to carve 300 sperm whales. “I like the challenge of doing different things.”
Margaret Carroll-Bergman is a staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.