George Stimpson

His life and works

Home > Information Roundup > What is whalebone?
What is whalebone?

Whalebone, formerly widely used in making umbrellas, brushes and corsets, stays and other articles for stiffening women's dresses, is not bone and has none of the properties of true bone. The term is merely a popular but inaccurate name for an elastic, fibrous substance that grows on the roof of the mouth of the right whale and certain other species of whales. Whalebone (more properly called baleen, from Latin balaena, "sea-monster" or "whale") consists of a series of thin parallel plates on the palate and is a horny exaggeration of the ridges found on the roof of the mouth of most mammals [page 77] Baleen plates range in length from two to fifteen feet, although they seldom exceed twelve feet even in the largest whalebone or baleen whales. They take the place of teeth and their function is to strain sea food from the water that the whale takes up in large mouthfuls. The commercial value of whalebone is due to its combined lightness, flexibility and toughness. It has been largely supplanted by steel and other materials in making umbrellas and other articles. Whalers prepare the product for the market by boiling it until it is quite soft and then cutting it into strips of the required size. Formerly the whale was often confused with the walrus and other sea animals and "white as whale bone" originally meant "white as walrus ivory."