On the Water

Corset and Whalebone Scrimshaw Busk

For much of the nineteenth century, ladies' fashion required very small waists. The most common way to achieve this was to wear a tight laced corset, which could be adjusted according to the specific garment it accompanied. Like this example, many of them were handmade to fit an individual, although they were also available in shops.

One of the most intimate pieces of scrimshaw a whaleman could produce was a bone or baleen busk, or corset stiffener. These were carved and given to a crewman's loved one, who then inserted it into a matching sleeve on her corset as a unique memento of her beloved's feelings.

One side of this whalebone busk contains three cityscapes, two of which have busy ports with lots of shipping. The other side has eight vertical pictures, topped by a full frontal portrait of a beautiful young woman. She may represent the recipient of this busk. Below her is a city scene with multiple church steeples over a flag in a precinct. A multi-colored circular geometric pattern is at the center, above a garden scene over a delicate basket of flowers. Next is a three-masted warship, and at the bottom is a large rural villa overlooking a walled garden. Can these pictures be woven into a story?

ID Number:
whale bone
13 13/16 in; 35.052 cm
Gift of Frederic A. Delano

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