Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More about Corsets: Baleen Ho!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Susan reports:

Whenever the word "corset" is mentioned in a historical context, it's almost always described as being "whalebone." Yet this is something of a misnomer: corsets weren't stiffened with whalebone, but with another part of the whale called baleen.

Baleen is the feathery, comb-like feature in the mouths of whales, screening and trapping food as they swim through the water. Baleen is made of keratin, a flexible material that's more akin to cartilage and fingernails than bone. But in the past, the definition - and the whale's anatomy - was blurred, and baleen and whalebone were used interchangeably. Baleen was harvested by whalers, and sold in strips such as those above left, on display in the milliner's shop in Colonial Williamsburg.

As a material, baleen is strong and stiff but yielding, and can be cut, filed, and shaped. Many things that are today fashioned from plastic were made from baleen in the 18th c., including eyeglass frames, the spokes of umbrellas and parasols, and the blades of folding fans.

And corsets. As soon as fitted, stiffened corsets
became the fashion in 16th c. France and Italy, baleen was the stylish choice for the stays - the long, narrow pieces that were forced into the corset's vertical channels. Baleen didn't crack like reeds or wood splints (other popular and less expensive options.) Baleen was strong and pliable, and it could be split to make the very thin stays that were necessary for sophisticated shaping.

A stylish 18th c. corset was a work of art, or at least of very high craftsmanship and engineering. Here are a few examples: from the Boston Musem of Fine Arts, the MMA's Costume Institute, and the Victoria & Albert.

There could be dozens of baleen stays in a single corset, each carefully cut, tailored, and finished to size. Nearly all corset makers were men, simply because few women possessed the hand strength necessary to force the baleen into the narrow channels. Of course, this also led to lots of salacious prints from the era, such as this one, lower right, with the leering corset maker fitting the young woman while another gentleman watches. Why do I doubt it's her husband?

But by the middle of 19th c., steel boning began to replace baleen in corsets. Steel was equally flexible, but far easier to manufacture and use, and considerably less expensive than baleen. Just as the development of oil drilling and the petroleum industry in the 1850s spelled the end of the whale oil market, so, too, did metal corset stays do the same for baleen.

Fortunately for whales, the days of Captain Ahab are as long gone as corsets. Today the harvesting of baleen and all other by-products of American whale fishing is strictly regulated by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, and profits from the sale of baleen are limited to Alaskan Aleuts, Indians, and Eskimos (which is the source of the baleen used at Colonial Williamsburg.)

For more information (and lots of photographs) about the sociology as well as the history of corsets, I recommend The Corset: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele.


Mme.Tresbeau said...

Fascinating! I had always wondered about those "whalebones", which made corsets sound like rigid skeletons. The flexible baleen makes much more sense.

Vanessa Kelly said...

I'm always amazed at the skill and artistry that went into the making of corsets. The one from the MMA is simply stunning!

Lady Burgley said...

Those examples of the Baroque stays are so beautifully sewn that it's hard to believe they were always covered up by outer clothing. One wonders if the baleen has deteriorated and grown brittle over the centuries, or if it has retained its flexibility. Could be a nightmare for conservation!

DanielleThorne said...

Another excellent article--thank you so much! I had no idea!

nightsmusic said...

Those corsets are gorgeous! But then, I would imagine it's a bit like the modern woman who wears a fine/fancy bra and undies under her clothing. It just seems to make one feel a bit more...feminine? Sexy? Female? Obviously something, because Victoria's Secret bases their company on beautiful bras and underthings and look at how successful they are!

SCSeamstress said...

That little bundle of baleen stays in the first picture is gold to anyone recreating historical costume. Because of regulation, it's almost impossible to find baleen for love or money, but there's no modern replacement that comes close to it. Anyone who's used plastic or metal stays knows this. Baleen is firm, but it also responds to the wearer's body heat and adjusts to fit in ways that plastic never will. Great stuff if you can find it. Excellent, fun blog, no one else writes about all the things you girls do!

Fashiongirl said...

Here's another link to the red V&A stays:

And another set with amazing stitching:

And one more that are kind of worn, but you can still see the channels for the stays:

Thank you for explaining the diff between baleen/baleine and whalebone. Easy to get that wrong.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Sorry about the Blogger weirdnesses today -- I can't explain what was going on in the Blogger-universe.

Mme. Tresbeau, I understand exactly what you mean about the idea of a "whalebone" corset, because I could never quite figure that out myself. A corset that was supported by actual bones would be hard, brittle, and weigh a ton -- none of which applies to baleen. Mystery solved!

Vanessa, Lady B., Danielle, Theo --these corsets are gorgeous, aren't they? Despite their 18th c. shape, there's something very streamlined and modern about the stitching. FashionGirl, thank you for more examples via the links. Never too many!

Lady Burgley, I haven't any idea about the deterioration factor of baleen. I've never heard it mentioned as an issue, but that doesnt' mean anything. *g* Anyone else know?

SCSeamstress--that's fascinating about baleen being in such demand for recreation/reproduction work, but also so difficult to find. I know the CW ladies keep it under the counter in their shop, and I guess that's why.

Pauline said...

Baleen is pretty tough stuff. I'm doubting that much organic deterioration has gone on; probably more wear-and-tear.

Living in Alaska, you see a lot of baleen used as decoration both indoors and out and it holds up year after year, decade after decade much like ivory. And, since subsistence whaling is still practiced by Native Alaskans, it is still fairly available (though not necessarily easy on the wallet).

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thanks, Pauline! I should have known that as our resident (and perhaps only?) Alaskan commenter, you'd have the answer. :)

I did a quick google-search of how & where to buy baleen, and what keeps coming up are the ominous warnings from the feds.

Good for whales, bad for corsetmakers....

Rowenna said...

I'd love to handle some baleen to see how it differs from modern stay materials! I've used metal "spring" boning, probably the closest modern fascimile, but there are certainly differences. For one, over time, metal acquires bends where it's strained by natural curves. From extant examples, seems to not be a problem with baleen!

Lyn S said...

Baleen Ho and corsets -- all I could think of was Robert DeNiro as the cross dressing pirate in Stardust. That movie has beautiful costumes for the women as well.

Anonymous said...

i read all your posts..and none of you say anything about the high number of whales that were killed for those pretty the way almost all the whales that have baleen (meaning they don't have teeth)are now endangered....bless the "skill and artistry that went into making these corsets".and just so you know whale bone is the name that was used for baleen...wich is in the mouth of the whale and it contains kreatin like you finger nail.have a fun day ...don't mind my spelling i'm from Romania and i love you whales

QNPoohBear said...

Has anyone been to the whaling museum in Fall River, MA? Despite being nearby, I haven't been there and I wondered if they had whalebone corsets in their collection. (I knew whalebone wasn't actually bone). I heard that whale/marine mammal teeth were used to make busks for stays and were sometimes carved like scrimshaw. I don't know if they were ever worn or purely decorative. See

Corset blog said...
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Anonymous said...

The word "la baleine" means the whale in French. So I imagine the words baleen and baleine, which are homonyms, have become confused.

There must be more to the story though. I know the blubber was used as a hair pomade too. I'm sorry people so heavily hunted whales in the past; poor Moby had a right to be upset. I'm glad we use steel bones now.

Andy said...

"Whenever the word "corset" is mentioned in a historical context, it's almost always described as being "whalebone." Yet this is something of a misnomer"

Hi Two Nerdy History Girls. Isn't history amazing?

Anyway, I feel compelled to comment as opening a post with something that is factually wrong isn't doing the reader any favours. Whalebone and baleen are the same thing. It's whale bone (two words - the actual bone of whales), which is sometimes used incorrectly.

Beep beep.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Andy - I'm sorry, but you're mistaken. Baleen is not whalebone, nor any bone found in a whale's body. Instead it's "a horny keratinous substance found in two rows of transverse plates which hang down from the upper jaws of baleen whales." (from Merriam-Webster.) Different, more flexible stuff entirely.

Andy said...

Hi Susan, I never said whalebone is actual bone, it's not. The Oxford Dictionary refers to whalebone as the 'elastic horny substance which grows in a series of thin parallel plates in the upper jaw of some whales and is used by them to strain plankton from seawater'. Whale bone (two words) refers to actual bones in whales.

After a quick search, 'whalebone' (one word) is used in reputable sources such as The Guardian and the New York Times and in many books on the subject. I don't believe it's 'something of a misnomer' at all.

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