This is one of an assembled collection of sailor-made whimseys that I am offering. I think this one is made of whale bone. Sailors spent weeks or months at a time at sea. They amused themselves by using the materials at hand (whale ivory, bone and baleen) to carve beautiful items for their own use, on board, or as a gift for a loved one at home. This little beauty is an awl or bodkin. It was likely used by the sailor for repair of sails and the like. It is beautifully carved with serrated edges, a heart at the top center (also with serrated edges) and four keys in the center. The bottom half has a carved step down and then moves fluidly into the straight awl at the bottom. The heart and keys would have been used to hold the thread or string needed for the sewing. This particular piece would have allowed five or more threads to be used at once. The serration of the heart allowed for multiple threads to be used at once. A great piece of 19th century nautical folk art. 4 1/2" x 5/8" at the widest point.
***Note, I've just had a collector of nautical whimseys look at this piece. It is definitely bone (not whale tooth) and the collector thinks it may be beef bone. He also feels like the work looks like French Prisoner of War. During the Napoleonic Wars, scores of French soldiers were taken prisoner by the British, especially between 1792-1812. So many were held prisoner that prisons were make-shift and overcrowded. The POWs fashioned many types of items using whatever was available, including the bone from their food rations. Many of these POWs had been ivory craftsmen before the war, so intricate work on bone was a natural for them. They soon learned that they could make illicit sales of these carved works to pay for money, food and other tiny conveniences. It is believed that business became so lucrative that the POWS ended up trading finished pieces or using their illicitly earned money with the guards for more material for more handiwork. French POW work varies from small pieces such as this awl to very large mechanical pieces called "Spinning Jennys" and fully masted ships. It is believed that some of the larger pieces were made by teams of POWs.
I'm having a hard time deciding what category to list this collection under, so look for them under both Folk Art and Not Miscellaneous!