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A firm, elastic substance resembling bone, taken from the upper jaw of the right whale, used as stiffening in stays, fans, screens, and for various other purposes, baleen. The whalebone occurs in long, thin plates, arranged transversely in rows and fringed at the edges with thread-like processes. There are about three hundred of these plates in the mouth of a full-grown animal, varying from ten to fifteen feet in length. Their use is to retain the mollusks, medusæ, and other small fry which constitute the food of the whale. The whalebone is chiefly obtained from the Balæna mysticetus, or Greenland whale, and B. australis, or Southern whale. It is prepared for manufacture by being softened by boiling, and dyed black. — Webster, 1882

The use of whalebone for ladies’ stays, and formerly for the ribs of umbrellas, is well known. -The Sailors’ Magazine and Seaman’s Friend, 1897

The long bony plates extending from certain toothless whales’ upper jaw is whalebone, but more properly called baleen. Made from keratin protein the same as human hair and the rhinoceros tusk, the flexible baleen is what allows the whale to eat. Water is filtered through the small openings between hairy baleen plates, leaving small fish, crustaceans and plankton behind, which the whale swallows. Some whales take in huge mouthfuls of water and then force it out through hundreds of baleen plates; others troll for prey. Baleen photo copyright 2007, Jerry Kirkhart. Used with permission.

Like human hair, baleen continues to grow during a whale’s lifetime. It wears down or breaks off and is replaced, and the ends tend to get shredded and feathery, helping greatly in the filtering process. A living whale’s baleen is quite soft and elastic, but it hardens in the non-living creature. In the days before plastics, whalebone was used in the manufacture of umbrellas, brushes, whip handles, shoe horns, fishing rods, paper folders, assorted netting and sewing tools, and dress and corset boning.

In the Little House books, whalebone is used as the boning in the basques of Laura’s and Mary’s best dresses in These Happy Golden Years, just as it was mentioned used in Ma’s best pre-marriage dress in Little House in the Big Woods. This whalebone had been boiled to soften it, then slit into thinner pieces and cut into the desired lengths and shapes. These stays are sewn into casings, then whipped into place in the garment.

Until the late 20th century, baleen whales were routinely hunted for their oil and whalebone. Today, all whales in United States waters, including baleen whales, are under the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Some species of baleen whale are protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Restrictions apply as to baleen items that may be legally sold in the United States.


Few persons know what the whalebone of commerce represents in the living animal. A writer thus describes it:

Whalebone, in fact, represents an enormous development of the gum of the whale, and exists in the living animal in the form of two rows of plates, which, like a great double fringe, hang or descend from its palate.

From one hundred and fifty to two hundred of these plates exist in the mouth of a whale, and the largest plates may measure from eight to ten or twelve feet in length. The inner edges of these whalebone plates exhibit a fringed or frayed-out appearance, and the whole apparatus is adapted to serve as a kind of gigantic sieve or strainer.

Thus when the whale fills the mouth with water, large numbers of small or minute animals, allied to jelly-fishes and thelike, are ingulfed and drawn into the capacious mouth cavity.

The water is allowed to escape by the sides of the mouth, but its solid animal contents are strained off and entangled by the whalebone fringes, and when a sufficient quantity of food has been captured in this way, the morsel is duly swallowed. Thus it is somewhat curious to reflect that the largest animals are supported by some of the smallest beings. – The Youth’s Companion, October 10, 1878, page 332, column 2.


whalebone (BW 7; TLW 32; LTP 9; THGY 32), see also basque