On the Water

Whalebone and Bone Umbrella

The bony substance from the mouths of whales known as baleen is formed of keratin, like human hair and nails. It hangs in long, parallel sheets from the upper jaws of the blue, right, and minke whales, as well as other lesser-known species. Its hairy fringe filters food from seawater.

Dried out, baleen’s strength and flexibility made it ideal for buggy whips, corset busks, and umbrella ribs before the advent of plastic. A whale’s bone could actually be worth more than its oil. This man’s large umbrella has a wooden shaft, heavy hinged baleen ribs made in short sections, and an ivory handle. Marked “G. Hobbs, Barre,” it belonged to the donor’s grandfather, who lived in Barre, Massachusetts, until around the end of the Civil War.

ID Number:
whalebone, ivory, wood, metal
ca 1835 - 1865
overall open: 103 cm x 5.5 cm; 40 9/16 in x 2 3/16 in
Gift of A. M. Harrington

Other Views