If you're not a re-enactor or costume historian, you'll likely be puzzled by exactly what these photographs show. Not quite underwear, not quite an accessory, these would be instantly recognized by a wide range of women from the past, from ladies at Queen Elizabeth I's 16th c. court to sailors' sweethearts in 19th c. New England.
They're called busks. Varying in length from between approximately 12"-16" and an inch or two wide, their purpose was to offer an additional reinforcement to the shaping garment of the day - whether a pair of bodies (16th c.), stays (17th-18th c.), or corset (19th c.)
Too modern eyes, they appear phenomenally uncomfortable. The busk was inserted into a special narrow pocket in the front of the corset, and tied in place with ribbons. Busks generally ran from the breasts to the top of the pubic bone. The busk was supposed to keep the posture straight and upright, as well as helping to keep the breasts elevated and the belly flat. The longest, most extreme, examples must also have made sitting a challenge.
Busks were made of wood, metal, ivory, or bone. Some were purely functional, but others were beautifully decorated, a private luxury like lace-trimmed lingerie today. Given their intimate purpose - and where they lay on a woman's body - busks were also erotically charged, and could be a special gift between lovers. Hearts and cupids are favorite motifs.
Some of the most elaborate busks were created by 19th c. sailors on New England whaling ships for their sweethearts back home. These scrimshaw busks, made from carved whalebone, featured images drawn from the creator's imagination or from 19th c. magazine illustrations, and helped pass the long hours at sea, doubtless with pleasing thoughts of how the recipient would wear the gift.
Sometimes the connection to a lover is obvious. A metal busk worn by the 17th c. French princess Anne-Marie-Louise d'Orleans, Duchesse de Montpensier, carried this message: "How I envy you the happiness that is yours, resting softly on her ivory white breast. Let us divide between us, if you please, this glory. You will be here the day and I shall be there the night."* Please click on the images to enlarge them to see the detail.
*From The Corset: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele
Top: Busk, 18th c. France, metal, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Middle: Busk, 17th c. France, ivory, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bottom: Busk, mid-1800s, America, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History