Baleen – definition

Baleen, Plastic of the 18th Century

Baleen comes from a suborder of whales, Mysticeti, which includes, among others, humpback whales, gray whales, right whales and blue whales. What sets these whales apart is baleen. These whales do not have teeth, but have upper jaws filled with two rows of baleen plates fringed with fine baleen hair. These plates are so closely aligned that they act like a comb or a sieve; whales pull water across them, catching the small plankton they feed on in the baleen ‘hairs’. Baleen varies widely in size, as the sizes of the whales it comes from vary. The individual plates can be as small as 2 feet, but as large as 12 feet long! A single plate can weigh 200 pounds. Baleen is often called whalebone, which is a bit of a misnomer. Baleen is not bone, but rather keratin, the same protein that forms hair and fingernails in humans as well as horns and claws in animals.
Archaeology suggests that hunting whales was crucial to the Inuit way of life as early as 1000 A.D. In a landscape that offers so few materials, every part of a whale was used, including baleen. Because of the lack of wood for fires for boiling water, baleen was softened by soaking it in urine. Baleen had another property that made it valuable in the Arctic environment: it doesn’t not frost. As a result, it was deemed useful for all sorts of utilitarian purposes, such as fishing lines and sled runners.

A baleen sled with hide ties. (p4A item # D9763560)

Europe was slower to realize all the potential uses of baleen, but as early as the 15th century, baleen, not whale oil, was driving the whaling industry. Baleen was scraped to remove the fine hairs, and then boiled to soften it. It could be softened to the point that it could be bent, molded and even stretched. In this soft state, it was also possible to add dyes, most commonly black. Baleen created items like riding crops and umbrella ribs and smaller bits of it were used to form cane heads and ladle handles. (Baleen doesn’t conduct heat like metal either, so it made great handles and grips for objects that heated up.) It was even used to bind violin bows and sword hilts. Virtually every part of the whale was used, even the smallest fringe hairs on the baleen, which were used to stuff upholstery.

Baleen’s price was closely linked to the fashion trends of England and Europe, being used for busks, pieces of a rigid material slipped into pockets in the front of a corset to keep it straight and upright. As small decorative objects that could be carved and were placed in a hidden place near the heart, busks were common sweetheart gifts, often beautifully decorated with delicate carvings. Baleen’s flexibility and durability also made it perfect for forming the hoops in hoop skirts. Baleen’s price was roughly at its highest when hoop skirts were at their widest.

Detail of the end of a scrimshaw baleen busk with delicately carved details. (p4A item # D9981258)

As the whaling industry declined and better, cheaper plastics were developed, the use of baleen faded. After the last quarter of the 19th century, most baleen appears in small souvenir objects from the Inuit and Yupik cultures of the Arctic. As tourism in the region open up, handcrafts helped support the people who lived in these harsh regions. Carving had long been a tradition, and baleen objects occasionally appear, but more often, baleen was used to inlay ivory carvings. Basket weaving was also introduced, using small strips of baleen, and many finely woven baskets with carved ivory finials survive today.

A baleen basket with ivory finial carved in the shape of a diving whale’s tail. (p4A item # D9777078)

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