It can be said that one of the former Presidents of the United States, President John F. Kennedy, was partly responsible for bringing antique scrimshaw whale tooth collecting, history and beauty to attention during his office and even after his death. There was even a book written titled John F. Kennedy: Scrimshaw Collector by Clare Barnes which detailed the collection of JFK. One might say that Kennedy’s antique scrimshaw whale tooth collection started when he was young, when he spent time in Cape Cod and Boston close to the water. It is known that he grew up sailing and had always had a fascination with the sea. He also served in the United States Navy where he was honored with a purple heart medal. His actual collection didn’t actually start until his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, gave him an antique scrimshaw whale’s tooth as a gift upon entering the Presidential office.
Whaling historian Clifford Ashley said that the gift of a whale’s tooth was a “wish to present a distant friend with a trophy of the whale-hunt, a huge tooth that in actual conflict had threatened [the giver] and now stood a symbol of his success.” For Kennedy, perhaps the whale tooth represented the life he admired and somewhat to live, the dangerous and romantic life at sea experienced by he and whalers of the 19th century.
A few photos of Kennedy show him sitting in the oval office with several antique scrimshaw whale teeth outlining his desk. Even his desk, given to him by England and called the Resolute desk, was made from remnants of the Resolute warship which was salvaged from the Artic by a whaling vessel in 1885. It is said that persons would send him antique scrimshaw whale teeth as gifts but only upon approval, as he was very particular as to what he collected. Kennedy was very interested in collecting antique scrimshaw whale teeth with historical figures including former Presidents. He also collected many antique scrimshaw whale teeth with sailing and whaling ships.
It is interesting to note that Kennedy sometimes gave antique scrimshaw whale teeth as gifts. One tooth in particular was given to the Swedish actress Greta Garbo after her visit and dinner to the White House in November 13, 1963. Nine days later Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. This whale tooth was perhaps the last gift he ever gave before his death. It was not known that the whale tooth was given to Garbo and employees of the Kennedy Museum and Library had always wondered where the “missing JFK tooth” was. In 2000, an employee for the Library’s collection researched transcripts and letters to and from the Kennedy’s where they found this message in a note written to Mrs. Kennedy from Garbo: “It was a most unusual evening for me that I spent with you in the White House. It was really fascinating and enchanting. I might believe it was a dream if I did not have in my possession the President’s ‘tooth’ facing me.” The tooth was loaned to the Library from Garbo’s neice and heir, during an exhibition put on detailing relics of Kennedy’s life.
In 1962 Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned a large whale tooth to be polished and scrimshawed by scrimshander Milton Delano for a Christmas gift to the President. The tooth has the Presidential seal scrimshawed on the whale tooth. JFK thought so much of the tooth that Jacqueline Kennedy buried him with the tooth in his casket.