A gentleman came into an evaluation event a few weeks ago with a collection of what looked like bone spears. Several were plain with different lengths and widths but five of them were decoratively carved. I’d never seen anything like this collection and was ashamed that I didn’t know what they were.
My ignorance must have made the gentleman’s day: he was trying to stump me and he did! What he had was a collection of fids.
I ought to have known about the fids. I grew up on the east coast and once spent a freezing October on a boat in Maine’s Penobscot Bay at Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. A fid is a cone shaped maritime tool used to loosen rope knots on a ship, to hold knots open or to separate strands of rope in preparation for splicing. The length and diameter of the fid corresponds to the thickness of a rope.
Fids are utilitarian and plain and were traditionally made of bone or wood. (Contemporary fids are made of steel, aluminum and even high impact plastic.) However, some highly decorative ones have been found.
Sailors on whaling ships spent months at a time at sea and they had access to whale bone and walrus tusks. This marine ivory could be carved and decorated to make decorative gifts or utilitarian items like swifts, tatting bobbins, parasol handles and the like. One sailor obviously thought the on board fids a little too pedestrian so he carved decorative elements onto the handles.
Maritime collectors prize decorative fids. The two examples shown here, about 6 and 8 inches, would each bring $200-300 at auction in a place where the sale of ivory is legal. Here in California, ivory is legal to own but not to sell.