How did whalebone define gender roles in the seafaring industry for both men and women?

Blue Satin Corset
Courtesy of the Fashion Institute of Technology

THE WHALEBONED BODY:This investigation focuses on how whalebone gave women complementary power on land as men had at sea and also how whalebone defined the architecture of the body through the corset.  I aim to explore the disjuncture between the Victorian domesticity of the corset and the changing ideas of community including economic and social shifts in whaling communities like New Bedford, MA.

Annotated Bibliography

Norling, Lisa. Captain Ahab Had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery 1720-1870. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Norling’s literature will provide the framework to explore how the whale fishery created new gender roles for women, in particular, for the wives of whaler’s.  Focusing on the southeastern whaling communities of New Bedford and Nantucket, Norling’s work dispels the genderless notion of the seafaring industry arguing for its dependence on women and their important role in controlling the land while the men were at sea.  These shifting gender roles conflict with the typical male independence (as depicted in Melville’s Moby Dick) of whalers and the emergence of the female Victorian domesticity. This text will serve as a comparison to earlier factory typologies where a rigid social division of labor existed and how the whaling industry’s ideas of sexual difference encompassed different yet complementary responsibilities for men and women.  The occupation of men demanded women’s duties that were at odds with the perception of the effortless Victorian appearance.  This will support the argument that whalebone defined women’s gender roles -materially and bodily through the corset and socially through responsibilities of the land.

Recarte, Ana. “Historical Whaling in New England.” Friends of Thoreau (n.d.): 1-29.

This academic article focuses on the history of whaling in New  England and its success at New Bedord, Masschusetts in particular, the inspiration for Moby Dick. The text explains why New Bedford became the “whaling capital of the world.”   The text also provides details of particular whales and explains of the inner workings between different New England whaling towns.  Partnering this information with the specifics details of the corset will provide a link between the overall industry and production.

Smithsonian Museum of American History. “On the Water: Commercial Fishers: Whaling.” http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/3_7.html.

Catalogue of American whaling from the late 1700s through the mid-  1800s.  Includes photographs of whale products, whaling instruments and information regarding the whaling industry.  This website will provide visual support for the importance of whalebone within southern New England
whaling communities. 

State Street Trust Company. Whale Fishery of New England. Boston: Walton Advertising and Printing Company, 1915.

This publication provides an overall understanding of whales and whaling.  It accounts for the overall history, its emergence in New England and then focuses on Nantucket and New Bedford in particular.  Also  explored is the whaling vessels, species of wales and the decline of the industry.  Comparing this text with class readings on the factory typology of early American towns will highlight changes in industrialization and production.  Also, this literature can be used to support evidence from Norling’s book.

Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Steel takes an opposite approach to Waugh, advocating for the  positive connotations of the corset and arguing against those who believe the corset was antagonistic toward women.  This source provides a more intimate look at the corset, noting how the direction of the whalebone helped to shape figure and narrow the waist.  Particular attention is paid to style and design.  I can use this literature to describe the architecture of the body for women during this time with the corset and women both depending on whalebone.

Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. New York: Theater Arts Books, 1970.

Waugh accounts for the history of whalebone or baleen in corsets describing the American Fishery of the 19th century as the third great whale fishery.  She describes the quality and appearance of whalebone in depth,  noting its ability to produce subtle curves.  Straightforward and factual, Waugh also details the process of constructing a corset and explains “The  Whaleboned Body.”  This source will serve to provide logistical information and aid in the connection between architecture of the body and roles of women as fishermen’s wives.



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