June 27, 2010


While the hand is healing I thought I'd share something I found.

Bone casings salvaged from an old victorian bodice. And what was the boning hiding inside?

Unless I'm mistaken, that's whalebone. I am not going to store this in a drawer of sacred things. There are 13 pieces measuring between 9 and 5 inches, enough to provide support for a ribbon corset, so I plan on using this. To the whales I say, thank you. I know the way we used you was horrible, but it seems like it would be equally bad to not use and appreciate this baleen now.

I've never seen genuine baleen before, if anyone out there has please let me know if I'm correct in thinking that is what I have. And if you've been fortunate enough to work with old whalebone is there anything I need to know ?


  1. I'm definitely not an expert, but my family descends from whalers so I have some whalebone jewelry and pieces. All of my things are an ecru color/sort of like ivory.

  2. It looks just like the boning I found in an old bodice too, and very similar to the raw chunk of baleen I found for sale on eBay a few years ago.

  3. Well it is certainly the right sort of texture to be baleen, which is the filters in the whales' mouths rather than actual bone, so as the slices are thinner, more like fingernails, they will age quicker and bones/nails do darken with age (unless left in the sun which will bleach it of course). And the holes through which there is still a bit of thread also points to it being baleen as they used it because you could sew through it to hold the bones in place.

    I found this image of baleen which is unused for comparison - almost identical in colour.

    I also think it would be a waste not to use it now. Sure its not nice to think these whales were hunted just for the bones, but its done now, we can't go back and stop it so its far more respectful to the whales to re-use them, keeping their memory living in a brand new garment. I'd be careful however with how tight you lace any corset with these bones in as they will have degraded somewhat and will be more brittle, so wouldn't want you to snap one and end up with it stuck in your side. A ribbon corset is probably a good choice as they were never intended for much waist reduction.

    Good luck with putting them to use!

  4. In my non-professional opinion - definitely "whalebone"/baleen (I grew up in Alaska, and have seen the stuff numerous times, though usually with the thread-y/string-y part still attached)

    It looks like a couple of them are ever so slightly warped.

    If I'm not mistaken (and PLEASE - check with an authority before trying this!) you can soften them in a hot water soak and reshape them.

  5. Anonymous, the stuff you are used to is usually whale teeth from toothed whales, not baleen whales.

    Looks like baleen to me. I've heard the soaking thing too, but would also check with an authority before I did it. Your body heat as you wear the corset may also re-shape them.

    Be aware that you will want to keep EXTREMELY good documentation on where you got the bodice and the baleen from, and the entire history of its use, especially if there is any possibility if you might take it out of the country.

    I used to arrange travel for museum pieces made of whalebone, and even with impeccable provenance, transporting even the tiniest thing that involves whalebone is such a hassle! The last thing you want is for your corset to be confiscated and for you to face fines or jail time.

    You may even want to see if you can get a document from a CITES officer (or the US alternative) confirming the whalebones age BEFORE you put the baleen into your corset.

    With all of that said, I am so envious that you found real baleen! I really, really want to find some and make a corset out of it so that I can research how it acts in comparison to modern alternatives. Please tell us as much as you can as you work on it!

  6. Thanks for the input ladies!

    Binkydoll, it turns out there is an appendix in the back of Corsets and Crinolines about whalebone, and you are correct, it says the strips can be softened in hot water then shaped.

  7. Wow Dreamstress, I never though about getting documentation. That is good advice. Thank you! And I will pass on everything I learn when I start working with it.

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  9. I just found your blog and it sounds like a really interesting project that your doing, corsets and crinolines is such a good book, I wish you lots of luck with it.

    What a find with the whalebone! I had never seen any before, I think its great that you are going to give it a second life. I will definitely be reading your blog in the future.

  10. I think it's very good and respectful to continue to use and treasure the baleen. Also, I would like to point out regarding AlexaFaie's comment that the whales were not harvested solely for their bones (or baleen), but also for their meat and oil. In fact, the main drive behind whaling at its peak was oil. Sound familiar? So, in some ways at least, the use of whale boning was something that instilled value in a byproduct that could otherwise have been discarded.

    Note: there is currently a proposal at the International Whaling Commission to lift the ban on commercial whaling. You can sign a petition against that here: http://www.avaaz.org/en/whales_last_push/

  11. Please be a little careful when using these. Baleen whales don't have teeth like us, their "whale bone" is a lot more like hair or fingernails, which means it's a protein. That also means it's not a mineral deposit and will degrade and become brittle over time as the proteins break down.

    If it's 100 years old, it is not going to have the same properties as it did when it grew on the whale. :(

    1. Actually, it has exactly the same properties when it's 100 (144 to be exact) years old, and I can tell you from personal observation :).

  12. I found an old cape that had 4 short brown bonnig in the coller could this also be whale bonning baleen