In preparation for the exhibition, A Usable Past: American Folk Art at the Colby Museum, Museum staff, faculty, and students delved into the Museum’s founding American Heritage Collection. The compiled discovers have been published in the exhibit’s accompanying catalogue. Here alum Marina Wells looks at our set of scrimshaw corset busks, objects at the intersection of the whaling trade, fashion, and 19th century moral standards.
Any nineteenth-century woman who was not “loose” wore a corset, a tightly fitting undergarment meant to give her body a desirable shape. A corset conferred status and also made the wearer more conventionally attractive by molding her waist into a slim cylinder. Once called corps à baleine (whalebone bodies), corsets had a crux called a stay or busk—a piece of whalebone or wood that provided the support and structure for the corset at its very center. When made of whalebone, these vertical shafts were often incised with elaborate designs, a decorative practice known as scrimshaw.
Men drawn to the whaling life were promised adventure, but scrimshaw attests that excitement did not dominate the months or years they were out at sea. Whalers’ handiwork expresses both a yearning for the terrestrial and a glorification of the nautical. These shards of whalebone are trophies of man’s triumph over nature—of killing a whale instead of being killed by it. Their intricate designs and the hours of labor that went into their making also express the mundanity of life at sea, the seaman’s wandering imagination, and the resulting homesickness.
Whaling historian Ashley Clifford hypothesizes that “scrimshaw” derives from the words “skimp” and “scrimp,” which mean “to be frugal.” In addition to the economical use of materials, craftsmen would use whatever they had at hand to etch the whalebone, including jackknives or sail needles. Artistic training and diversity of imagery were similarly scarce in scrimshaw. Often, scrimshanders were inspired by their surroundings (the sea, the whales, and the ships they knew so well), but for these corset busks, the craftsmen drew more from their memories and daydreams of the future. The iconography carved into the whalebones makes explicit their shared desire to return to land: houses, buildings, landscapes, and vegetation predominate, all things that whalers must surely have missed while staring at a landless horizon. It is romantic to imagine that whalers made these objects knowing they would be next to their lovers’ hearts; however, a busk was more than simply a component of a woman’s underwear. It also constrained her body, sculpting it into an appealing shape. The husband or lover who carved a busk was creating an object meant to keep his lover both literally and figuratively upright.
A busk would be kept either inside the corset itself or in a dark drawer. These six busks are highly personal, intimate objects that their creators and owners never meant to display. Since so few viewed them (possibly only the lover) and they were so infrequently exposed to light, the colored ink worked into their incised designs is likely close to its original shades. Made by several different hands, these busks likely pertain to different women, with the exception of those bearing the inscriptions H. R. S. and H. S., initials that may refer to the same individual. Such personalized objects blur the line between the second skin of the “whalebone body” and the actual body that the corset would embrace and mold.
 Clifford W. Ashley, The Yankee Whaler (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1926), 112.