17 January 2011

Corsetry: Just How Common Was Whalebone In the 16th Century Anyway?

Corsetry generally falls outside of my realm of costuming, but I've been meaning to post this tidbit of research I did on the prevalence and availability of "Whalebone" in the 16th century after the question came up on the Elizabethan Costuming Tribe over at Tribe.com.  Yes, Tribe still exists, and is still limping along as it always has.  I encourage you to click that link if you've any interest in Elizabethan constuming in general or this topic in particular.  A wealth of information -- an embarassment of riches to be certain.

So, on the topic of whalebone.  What was called "Whalebone" was really Baleen, the fine vents of keratin that some whales use to filter krill and other organisms out of sea water as they swim.  Keratin, as I believe I mention below is the same thing your fingernails are made of.  (I've handled the stuff and yes, it basically feels like a giant splintering fingernail.)

The Muscovy Company held the monopoly for North Sea and Channel whaling for most of the 16th Century. The practice was regulated out the yinyang even then to control (and thus tax) the enormous amounts of revenue it generated.
Incidentally, I hear a lot in historical costuming circles that the Queen had automatic claim to any whale beached in England or Scotland.  This apparently only sort of true.  According to this article written by TIME Magazine at the time the law was overturned by Parliament, the Queen's royal monopoly on whales was specifically for the tails.  The King (if there was one) got the head, which is where the baleen is found.  Maybe the king gave it over, or had it made into corsets as a gift to his queen (or his mistresses for that matter). 

I know TIME is hardly authoritative on this matter, but I found it amusing.
My favorite reference librarian Racheal dredged up an intriguing article called "A Genetic Analysis of 16th Century whalebones Prompts a Revision of the Impact of Basque Whaling on Right & Bowhead Whales In the Western North Atlantic" (Phew, these titles, I swear...). It's rather long and involved and postulates results for the entire North Atlantic from the analysis of one small sampling of whalebones recovered from a wreck off the Labrador Peninsula that cetacean depopulation predates the onset of large-scale human whaling by the Basques (the first large-scale whalers). Which is interesting enough, and certainly controversial, if only for the broadness of the authors' intent to refute what is largely considered settled history... but not really germane.

As is often the case, though, some really interesting bits are to be found in the extraordinary dissent.

A refutation of that piece, published by Aldemaro Romero and Shelly Kennada (which I, sadly, can no longer find on the open internet) pretty much tears apart their analysis and assumptions. But genetic analysis isn't really why we're here... what's germane to our discussion is the numbers they put up for pre-1611 whaling (when the Muscovy Company received the aforementioned monopoly of the Svalbard whaling grounds... The Basque whaling fleets ranged the whole of the North Atlantic, depopulating an area and moving on like seaborne locusts, killing between the generally-accepted minimum of 25,000 and what he and other historians of the topic I’ve read feel is the more realistic total of 40,000 whales.

Baleen yields for the two most prevalent kinds of whales taken are as follows (according to the delightful site for kids called www.enchantedlearning.com) Bowhead: 350 pairs and Right Whale: 200-270 pairs. Accepting the 40,000 number and assuming an average 310 pairs of baleen yield per whale captured, that’s approximately 24 million individual pieces of whalebone put on the European market put there by the Basque whalers alone. Remember that to make stays, a whole piece of baleen would be split into (at a guess) ten – twenty stays each.

CAVEAT: Corsetry wasn’t the only destination of a piece of ‘whalebone’ (baleen) but with a conservative estimate of 24 million whole individual pieces of baleen on the market in Europe from the Basque whalers alone… do the math.

Rebecca asked about processing the stuff. Baleen is made from a fibrous protein called keratin of a hardness very similar to our fingernails (hard but flexible). It was fibrous so it could be split almost infinitely, and steamed and then cooled to retain a shape. The Tudor Group - as I think I might've mentioned - gets baleen from the British Goverment and you can see some pictures of their tailors working with it on their site: www.tudorgroup.co.uk/index.html

So let’s do some math and play with the numbers a little, because math is fun, right? (crickets chirruping...)

www.Tacitius.nu estimates the 1600 combined populations of France, Spain, Portugal and England (countries where corsetry was ascendant pre-1600) was approximately 34.8 million people, over half of whom were women. So assume 34.8 million women. Even assuming a booming middle class, I would feel comfortable saying that barely half of those 34.8 million women were in the market for a corset, probably more like a quarter of that number, but that’s a guess (all population estimates pre 1800 are guesses anyway, so why not?). Take that and the fact that those 24 million pieces of baleen would be split and split again… you have quite a voluminous commodity, arguing strongly (IMO) that it was moderately expensive but hardly scarce.


Addendum: A link and some amazing and quite all-inclusive information provided by my dear friend and fellow costumer Noel Gieleghem: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2279/is_n159/ai_21029550/

As always, if anyone has any additional information of links, I'm happy to post them. The Tribe discussion ran the gamut and is well worth a read as well.


  1. Thank you for posting this all in one place. I will enjoy reading through the posted articles as I have time!



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