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Monday 22 February 2021

Maritime Media Volunteer, Alison Keld tells us more about how parts of whales were used for different reasons.

The first whaling ships left the port of Hull in 1598, soon after the discovery of Greenland. During the years 1815-1825 Hull had 2,000 men employed in the trade and could boast over 60 whaling vessels making it the largest fleet in Britain.

Parts of whales were used for many different purposes, and corsetry was one of them. Corsets were used as underwear to mould a woman's body into a fashionable shape.

Whalebone Corset
Corsets were used as underwear to mould a woman's body into a fashionable shape.

How many whalebones does it take to make a corset?

Technically none, corsets weren't stiffened with whalebone, but with another part of the whale called baleen. Made of keratin, a flexible material like cartilage and fingernails, baleen is a feathery, comb-like feature in the mouths of whales, screening and trapping food as they swim through the water.

Baleen Strips 1
Bundle of baleen strips

Baleen was harvested by whalers, and sold in strips in milliner's shops.

Being strong and pliable baleen can be cut into very narrow strips along the grain. Dozens of these strips were stitched into each side of the lining of bodices, and depending on the era were called stays or corsets. Nearly all corset makers were men, because few women had the hand strength necessary to force the baleen strips into the narrow, stitched channels in the bodice.

There are 180 baleen strips in these stays. Larger pieces at the seams maintain roundness at the front and straight pieces on the shoulder blades to hold the back straight.

Many things that are today made from plastic were made from baleen, including eyeglass frames, the spokes of umbrellas and parasols, and the blades of folding fans.

Baleen, or “whalebone” as it was more commonly referred to, was replaced by cheaper steel at the beginning of the 20th century, and the corset gave way to lighter girdles in the 1920s and 1930s. Corsetry was worn by most women until the 1960s when foundation-wear was replaced by diet and exercise as a method of figure control.

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