Any institution whose mission includes the words: “to educate and interest all the public in the historic interaction worldwide of humans with whales” is a place I want more of in my life. The New Bedford Whaling Museum is run by the Old Dartmouth Historical Society in New Bedford, MA. In its 107 year history it has taught visitors about the impact of the whaling industry on its community—one built by the business and culture of the almost unimaginable practice of hunting and utilizing the gigantic creatures for crude materials. Today, thankfully, the focus of the museum is to promote conservation of the majestic species and preservation of the memory of the whaling industry (past tense).
One of the fascinating aspects of museums is their role in providing a place to remember methods and materials that once were common place, but are no longer seen as appropriate. Even fashion collections in museums can be memorials to practices that we have thought better of—whether that means housing maternity corsets or hats festooned with the feathers of now extinct birds. The somewhat cringe-inducing objects of our past can be put to their best use in museums by educating people about the risks of short-sighted consumption, or even just by fostering gratitude that we’ve come a long way in our respect for the natural world and how not to treat it.
Whaling was once a viable and respectable way to make a living, in which the hunt produced a myriad of life-sustaining resources from food to heat. It also produced the raw materials for some fascinating objects of fashion history. Whalebone busks were oblong inserts slipped into a center front pocket that ran the length of a woman’s corset. The busks kept the firm upright shape of the corset, and therefore the wearer. While whale bones are popularly associated with corsetry, the busks were often the only true bones used as foundation for the corset’s structure. The rest of the shape was usually kept by cotton cording, specific seaming, and somewhat more flexible materials like stiff reed. Although whalebone busks were not usually the predominant structural material of the corset, their strong association with corsetry is for good reason; they were often more than just vertical posture support. Many busks were carved intricately and carefully by a man at sea with a lot of time on his hands. Upon return to dry land, he presented the busk to the lady of his affection as a memento of the depth of his love. The woman would slip the scrimshawed bone into the pocket of her corset that held it between her bosom, closest to her heart—a very intimate object with pride of place.
Busks were also made of various types of wood, steel, and a softer whale cartilage called baleen. While many museum collections house at least a few intricately incised busks of different materials, The New Bedford Whaling Museum is a great resource for the fashion scholar interested in the whaling industry’s connection to fashion. Whaling’s consequences grew into a nightmare of endangerment, but these objects remain as a vestige of its past prestige and importance as the foundation for many seaside communities—and many well-loved corsets.