Unidentified Corset Advertisement
Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, 1905.

Romance and marriage played a major role in whaling communities and kept men and women in equal partnership. Maritime couples had limited time together and tried to establish a private and romantic relationship.  Letters played a large role in the relationship and notions of love and sexuality sustained the separated partners from distance and space.  Norling supports this idea with examples from New Bedford’s maritime couples’ letters during the 1840s and 1850s.  Declaring her love, Susan Hathaway, wrote to her whaler husband, George Anderson, “I received your letter….and was very much pleased to here from you and here you were well and injoying your self so well try and injoy your self has well as you can until you get home and then we will bouth injoy our self together in Ma’s front room.“[i]Not all letters were filled with sensual implications but most reinsured the couples’ love and support of one another.

Letter from maritime couple Susan Hathaway to George Anderson, dated New Bedford, 15, November 1850. Courtesy of Old Dartmouth Historical Society-New Bedford Whaling Museum (Neg. 16194)

The corset was a technique used to express a woman’s femininity.  In this sense, the corset did exploit a woman’s sexuality but it was not necessarily a controlling apparatus in a patriarchal society but an instrument endorsed by the women themselves.  Though women may have supported the use of the corset for its femininity and association with romance the appeal did wane.  In the twentieth century as fashion endorsed a trend that emphasized looser clothes, the corset no longer depended on whalebone to define delicate curves.[ii]  The decline in the demand for whalebone among corsetry and other products led to the decline of the whale industry.  New England factory typology would change again but the whalebone corset undoubtly contributed to the next industrial stage.

“Popping Corn,” ca. 1856, by local artist Benjamin Russell, conveys a vivd sense of socializing especially courtship in New Bedford-area parlors. Courtesy of Dartmouth Historical Society-New Bedford Whaling Museum (Neg. 2954)

Whalebone empowered women in whaling communities through responsibility and the corset.  This new authoritative role for women allowed for greater empowerment in the women’s movement upheld by other industrial factories and their female workers such as at the Lowell Mills.

[i] Norling, Lisa. Captain Ahab Had a Wife, 177.

[ii] Waugh,Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. 169.


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