Friday, January 31, 2014

Death by Corset? Mystery Artifact Revealed

This week's mystery artifact was apparently a pretty tough one to guess!  I tried to give a hint in the title:  "Of Course It Is Time . . . "  "Course It" - "corset" . . . well, never mind.

This week's artifact is a busk, one of several lovely examples we have in our collection.  Historically, busks were made of carved wood or bone in a solid, rounded piece like the one above.  Corsets from the early 16th century on were sewn with a pocket in the front into which the busk could be placed to hold the corset front very straight and rigid.  (Think of portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, or better yet, a period drama like "Shakespeare in Love," in which all the women are held ramrod straight and constrained in their movements due to their tight-laced and busked corsets)! I can't imagine how uncomfortable it must have been to sit for hours on end, working needlepoint, with a busk poking and prodding one into a better posture.  As lovely as these artifacts are, I'm glad they went out of fashion!

Here are a couple more beautiful busks we have in our collection.  The one above is also carved bone and dates from around 1800, we think.  This next one is, I think, my favorite artifact of the moment:

It's carved wood in a triangular shape (for strength) and dates to 1788.  How do we know the exact year? 

The creator of this busk was kind enough to help us out by carving the date onto it!  Interestingly, the initials "C.F." are carved above the date, just below a pretty heart motif.

However, the initials "ET" are carved into the back, inside a circle and with a sort of sunburst pattern:

It was common for young men of this period to carve wood or bone busks for their sweethearts and present them as a gift.  I am wondering if the story of this busk includes a young lady with the initials C.F. for whom E.T. carved this busk?  (Perhaps I should have saved this post for Valentine's Day!)  Sadly, we don't have much provenance (the artifact's life history) for this item, as it was part of the foundational Redhed collection that I've mentioned in previous posts. 

This article, posted on the de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco's website, includes a fascinating timeline for corsets and related women's undergarments (right up through Madonna's news-making corsets in the 1980s!)
You'll note that in 1848, "Joseph Cooper invents the front-fastening busk . . . ."  By the middle of the 19th century, wooden and bone busk inserts had gone out of fashion, and the name busk began to refer to Cooper's invention, which looked like this:

More modern corsets were and are made with metal busks like the one above, allowing the corset to be taken off without having to undo the lacing.  The 1895 Montgomery and Ward catalogue advertises a "Misses Corset" (for girls aged 12-15) with a similar busk:

Note that the corsets advertised at the bottom of the page are for children aged 3-7 and 7-10 years.  I am not sure whether it is ironic or just plain funny that these corsets are advertised on the same page as horse harnesses:

I can't help thinking that both the harness and the corsets are similarly restrictive of the wearer's freedom of movement!

But what of the "Death by Corset" as promised in the title?  In the course of researching our artifacts this week, I came across this article from the October 30, 1903, edition of the New York Times:

It describes the sudden death of Mrs. Mary E. Halliday, of Niagara Falls, New York, who was "seized with a strange attack" and died soon after.  An autopsy found "two pieces of corset steel" - a total eight-and-three-quarter inches long - had lodged in her heart!  The article states that "where they rubbed together the ends were worn to a razor edge by the movement of her body."  Doctors suggested that she might have swallowed the steel corset stays (?!?!), but I would guess the poor Mrs. Halliday was a victim of fashion and perhaps a very unfortunate sneeze!

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