John F. Kennedy Had a Thing for Scrimshaw

He kept this one on his desk.

jfk scrimshaw

Photograph by Toan Trinh

John F. Kennedy’s affinity for the sea ran deep, from his boyhood swimming off the shores of Nantucket to his time with the Navy. It wasn’t until he was a senator, though, that he discovered his love for scrimshaw—the whalers’ art—and began collecting the intricate works. After ascending to the presidency, Kennedy displayed several scrimshaw throughout the Oval Office, lending the room a subtle nautical motif.

The piece featured here was a gift from Kirk LeMoyne “Lem” Billings, a high school friend and lifelong confidant who helped Kennedy amass his scrimshaw collection, which included more than 30 different works. “He kept this piece on his desk,” says Stacey Bredhoff, curator at the John F. Kennedy library, where today many of the items that furnished JFK’s Oval Office are on exhibit. “I think it was probably very special to JFK because it was a gift from Lem.”

While this work of art got prime placement, it wasn’t Kennedy’s favorite scrimshaw. That designation belonged to a custom-made piece featuring the presidential seal—a Christmas gift from Jacqueline Kennedy in 1962. When it was time to bury her husband a year later, Mrs. Kennedy slipped the scrimshaw into the president’s coffin.

Where to See It: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum