On the Water

Woman's Corset, 1810-1820

When this corset was made in the decade between 1810 and 1820 for an unidentified Indiana woman, it represented the latest evolution of a garment that had been essential women’s wear for centuries. Today, the word corset conjures an image of painful tight-lacing that was endured to produce an unnaturally small waist. However, the woman who wore this garment used it simply to support her chest (the brassiere would not be invented for another century) and to confine her shift, a voluminous knee-length undergarment, so that her high-waisted dress would sit smoothly over her torso and hips. If laced correctly, the wearer would have left a gap of several inches between the back edges of the corset, preventing it from being “tight-laced.”

Even so, this early 19th-century corset was distinctly different from the variations that came before and after it. During the 1700s, women had worn heavily boned, cone-shaped corsets called stays that had flattened their chests and made their torsos triangular. By the middle of the 1800s, the corset was once again heavily reinforced with narrow bones or steels to produce a curvy, hour-glass shape that was round and full both above and below the waist. By contrast, the corset shown here was intended to produce a natural-shaped figure. Hence, it relied mainly on cotton cording rather than bone or steel to coax the wearer’s body into the desired form. The only inflexible part of this corset was a long wooden or bone insert called a busk that slipped into a pocket at the center front and could be removed for washing.

Because of its lack of boning, this type of corset could be sewn at home without great difficulty. However, making a garment that fit was more complicated. The English author of The Workwoman’s Guide, Containing Instructions to the Inexperienced in Cutting Out and Completing those Articles of Wearing Apparel, &c., Which are Usually Made at Home (1840) suggested that “with respect to the cutting out, it is recommended to those who make their own stays, to purchase a pair from an experienced stay-maker that fit perfectly well, and also a pair cut out, but not made up, so as to be a good pattern for the home-made stays.” Sturdy cotton jean or satin were the most commonly used fabrics for corsets in the early 19th century. White was the preferred color, but gray and brown were both thought to be practical for “inferior” corsets.

This tan cotton sateen corset is made to be laced up the back through nine pairs of irregularly placed bone eyelets. The shoulder straps are meant to tie in place at the front of the corset through one bone eyelet at the end of each strap and a corresponding one over each shoulder blade. The original lacing and ties are missing. Two triangular inserts of fabric called gussets provide shape and support for each side of the bust. A decorative three-leafed motif is backstitched at the lower end of each bust gusset. Another matching, inverted trefoil is centered below the bust gussets, rising from the midriff. The upper and lower edges, and the edges of the shoulder straps, are bound with dark tan twill tape.

ID Number:
flattened: 18 x 19 in.; 45.72 x 48.26 cm
Gift of Mrs. Hugo Friedrichs