Narwhal Tusk Coatrack

Original content by: Sally Motycka

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

A single narwhal tusk, creamy ivory with a distinctive spiral steeple, has long been seen as an object of beauty to some people.  But this narwhal tusk hall rack, with four separate spires, is beyond compare.  This memorable piece of furniture is a nautical abstraction attributed to Captain John Orrin Spicer.  The circular wooden base is marked by signs of wear as if used to scrape the bottom of a boot.  Emerging from the center of the base is a tapering, vertical post, constructed with the same dark wood.  Connecting to the center post, mid-way, is a circle of walrus tusk ivory supported by four turned wooden spars resembling a ship's wheel.  The piece is over 73 inches tall, and rests upon four turned ball feet. Embedded in each foot, like an ivory mast is a narwhal tooth.  And at the top of the tapering post, twelve ivory pegs, spiral outward like a queen conch.

An account given by Captain John O. Spicer accompanied the donation of this hall rack to Mystic Seaport in 1964.  It states that the piece was made for Nancy Madeline Avery, Spicer's wife.  He claimed to have worked on "every piece" but "did not make it all."  He captured the narwhal and walrus and gathered the dark, fine-grained wood referred to by Spicer as "man-ne-ta" from the Sandwich Islands.  "This wood was on board the bark Nile, and was used by to make canes and fancy boxes" which they would bring home to their loved ones.

Throughout time, the depiction of the narwhal as a mysterious creature has stayed strong.  The purpose of the narwhal tusk has long been researched and debated.  In his book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne asserted that the narwhal will attack boats with its "ivory sword."  Current day descriptions of narwhals claim the whales to be shy animals that do not like loud noises.  They travel in pods and frequently poke their heads out of the water.  While they have been seen rubbing their tusks gently together with other narwhals, there is no confirmed evidence that narwhals use the tooth to attack.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Spicer gives a dramatic explanation of the capture of a narwhal. Compare this to recent descriptions of subsistence hunting for narwhal.
  2. Contemporary researchers who have looked at this hall rack have stated that they do not often see tusks of this size on Narwhals anymore. Why do you think that is?
  3. Compare the beluga and the narwhal. Why would they have been mistaken for the same animal?