In the Days of Sailors and Scrimshaw


Scrimshaw is the beautiful art form first practiced beginning in 1749, in the days of whaling ships, wizened sea captains and hardy sailors.  Whaling was a dangerous undertaking and could never be attempted at night, leaving sailors with free time on their hands.  They used it for carving elaborate pictures, lettering and scrollwork on the bones and teeth of sperm whales and the tusks of walruses and other marine animals. The work they left behind is a treasured collectible today. The extremely rare white tortoiseshell shown above is an early nineteenth century British scrimshaw, displayed in my home in Madaket.  The whaler’s handwork details ships, whales and equipment used in the seafaring life.


antique scrimshaw poker chips

antique scrimshaw poker chips

John F. Kennedy was an avid scrimshaw collector, and brought it back into fashion when he displayed his 37 piece collection in the oval office in the 1960s.  Today scrimshaw artists (called scrimshanders) can work with eco-friendly or man-made materials, including cow bones, antlers and ostrich eggs.


This 18th Century scrimshaw is carved from a whale tooth.

It’s impossible to write about the beauty of scrimshaw, though, without first acknowledging the damage being done to tusked animals today by poaching.  Where once a ship would set sail with its sights on a whale, and then use every part of the animal for meat, energy and art, there was not an understanding that the seas were a finite resource.

sea turtles

A sea turtle was once plentiful enough that the people of the 18th and 19th centuries could hardly imagine that that creature or any other would be endangered, and in need of protection.  Today, though, we are seeing a rapid decline of animals with tusks and horns, often slaughtered for just those parts of their anatomy and left to decompose.  Although antique scrimshaw is available for purchase and collecting, strict laws are now in place for animal protection. Elephant ivory has been protected since 1976, and is prohibited from being shipped into the United States or practically any other country in the world.


Poaching continues, however. Rhinos are a threatened animal, under siege for their horns, used in Chinese medicine and particularly sought after in Vietnam.  Consumers use ground rhino powder as a health aid, although there is no supporting evidence that it has any impact. Poachers killed 668 rhinos in South Africa in 2012, a 50% increase over the previous year. The World Wildlife Fund estimates another 800 rhinos will die in 2013. To protect them, wildlife managers are injecting the horns of live rhinos with poison and permanent pink dye to make them useless to poachers.  Although the poison is not fatal, it will make anyone who consumes the powdered rhino horn ill with nausea and diarrhea.


Anna Merz, who died on April 4, 2013 in South Africa, started a reserve to protect her beloved black rhinos and became a global leader in the fight against their extinction.   She is shown in the photo above with the rhino she hand-raised as an orphaned baby, Samia.  Samia was devoted to Merz, and followed her everywhere, even trying to enter the house behind her before becoming stuck in the doorway.  When Samia gave birth to babies, she presented them to Merz like any proud mother.

Anti-poaching campaigns are underway worldwide, but more attention is needed to protect the earth’s precious resources.  Learn more about how you can help from The African Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, or Stop Rhino Poaching.

Behind the Scenes at the Union Street Inn

A short walk down the cobblestone streets of “faraway island,” as the Native Americans called it, is an intimate boutique hotel called the Union Street Inn.  Owned and operated by Ken and Deborah Withrow,  experienced hoteliers who make the inn the luxurious and welcoming place that it is, this circa 1770’s hotel is a classic example of Nantucket architecture in the heart of the island village. I first designed the inn’s gracious circa 1700’s rooms thirteen years ago, and I have just had the pleasure of redesigning the inn from top to bottom for another generation of guests.  (Go here to see photos of the inn as it looked before the redesign!)


Next month, I’ll share some wonderful photos of the new inn, but first, here’s a peek at what goes on behind the scenes at a design installation!


How many lamps does it take to fill an inn with light?  Handmade by a potter in Vermont, these lamps are arrayed in careful order before placement in the rooms.


We found this wonderful antique milk glass doorknob with a Victorian backplate for the door.


We took fabric and backed it with paper to create the wallpaper shown by this staircase.  It’s a contemporary adaptation of an 18th Century Chinoiserie pattern. (“Chinoiserie” is a french term, meaning ‘Chinese-esque.’)  This is typical of a wallpaper that would have been brought back by a ship’s captain from his ocean travels.


This is original bullseye glass with the typical 18th Century pontil mark.  To create it, the glass blower would gather about 30 pounds of molten glass at the end of his blow tube and blow the lump out to a small, hollow pear shape. This would then be transferred to a pontil  (a solid rod), and flattened and spun until centrifugal forces flattened the glass out into a smooth disk. When cooled, the pontil would be broken off.  The center piece, called a “bullseye,” would be cut out.  It was considered waste, and was either recycled into the glass furnace, or became an inexpensive pane for windows such as these.

This kind of interior door was common in 18th Century Nantucket.  The glass at the top was necessary in order to detect fires in the room without opening the door.


Here is Price Connors helping to unload a truck full of treasures for the inn!


Here I am, taking my turn with the unloading!  Everyone pitched in.


Once the tables were safely inside, the real fun began.  Where, oh where, do all these tables go?

I’ll show you just where everything ended up in my June Holistic House post.  Ken and Deborah are so pleased with our design work, which makes us very happy!  I think you’ll love it, too.  You can book a visit to the Union Street Inn here.

Tales from the Crib: Tips for a Green Baby


When talking about creating a healthy home, I’ve often said the first place to begin is in the bedroom.  For families with children, especially babies, the first place to start is in the nursery.  We spend 1/3 of our lives sleeping, in close contact with bedding, mattresses and the often closed-air environment of a modern bedroom; for babies, their contact with nursery materials is multiplied as they can spend many more hours in sleep.

During sleep, your body works to remove any toxins you were exposed to during the day, and to restore energy and health. Babies, with their rapidly growing minds and bodies, need a pristine environment with clean air and minimal contaminants. According to the EPA, one of the top five hazards to human health is indoor air.  Here are some simple steps you can take to keep your baby happy and healthy:

  • When painting the nursery and refinishing floors, use no VOC paints and finishes.  VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds, chemicals (such as benzene, formaldehyde, toluene, and zylene) that “off-gas” for extended periods of time into the air we breathe. Non-toxic, no-VOC paints use water as a carrier instead of petroleum-based solvents, reducing the levels of heavy metals. Look for products with the Green Seal Standard, which certifies that they meet certain industry standards for VOCs.  (One of my favorite products is Envirosafe, a company which which uses no fungicides or biocides at all)


  • Choose hardwood, stone or tile floors that can be easily cleaned, and cover them with an organic wool or cotton rug.


  • Select an organic mattress for the crib, made with natural latex, wool or organic cotton. Be sure all the baby bedding is organic as well.  Babies snuggle into their blankets and put their mouths on everything; non-organic cotton is grown in fields soaked in insecticides.  Dyes and color fixers use heavy metals such as chromium, copper and zinc.  A good source for organic baby bedding and bath items is Coyuchi.  Their products are made from 100% certified organic cotton and are produced using fair labor practices.



  • Choose eco-friendly wood furniture that is FSC certified, a designation from the Forest Stewardship Council ensuring that the wood was grown and harvested in a way that protects forests for the long term. Chemicals such as formaldehyde and polyisocyanurate can also be emitted from plywood and manufactured wood products.The Organic Mattress Store offers maple, oak, ash or cherry cribs made without plywood or particleboard; it comes unfinished or with a Green Seal Tung Oil organic finish.  It’s also the place to get organic baby mattresses, made with natural rubber and organic wool, a natural fire deterrent.


  • Invest in a good air-filtration system. Clear the nursery air by adding a room purifier, or go one step further and install a central filtration system. Models are available that clear particulates that can’t be seen by the naked eye, such as dust and pet dander, along with mold spores, pollen and chemical gases such as sulfuric acid, ammonia and formaldehyde.


  • Be clean and green with non-toxic cleaners.  Many conventional cleaning products actually can pollute baby’s room with a toxic mixture of petrochemicals.  Seventh Generation has created a line of safe, natural baby products, as part of their “Campaign for a Toxin-Free Generation.”  You can purchase everything from  safe nursery and household cleaning products to diapers, baby laundry detergent and gentle skin care.


baby 2

Other important Green Baby Tips:

  • Be sure to use glass baby bottles, never plastic.  When plastic is heated, it can leach a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA) into baby formula at forty times the safe limit, potentially disrupting baby’s endocrine system.  


  • Dress baby in non-toxic sleepwear.  There are options which use acrylics and natural materials with tight weaves that can pass flame retardancy standards without the use of polybrominatd diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a chemical which is now found worldwide in dust, indoor and outdoor air, and waterways.


  • Make health and wellness as natural a choice in your daily life as the love and attention you so effortlessly give your precious children.  A healthy child is raised in a healthy home, and a healthy home is the ultimate luxury.