Objects Made of Baleen (Whalebone)

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Information below was supplemented by key research performed by Stuart M. Frank, Ph.D., Senior Curator, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, MA and also Director Emeritus, Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon, MA.

Included among the rarest and therefore most desirable eyeglass frames are those made of whalebone. Baleen, as it is also referred to, is a tough, springy, horny, keratin-like material which forms fringed plates that hang from the palate (upper jaw) of the baleen whale. Baleen grows throughout the whale's life and there can be as many as 400 plates per whale. These hairy plates are sieve-like, used to strain and filter plankton, krill, and other small organisms from the water. The collected food is then wiped off by the tongue for swallowing. Baleen whales (whalebone whales, Kingdom: Animalia, Phylum: Chordata -vertebrates, Class: Mammalia - mammals, Order: Cetacea, Suborder: Mysticeti) can, in this manner, be distinguished from other whales which instead have regular teeth.
These "great whales" are distinguished as the largest animals on earth. Baleen whales have two blow holes, the females are even larger than the males, and many are endangered because of over-hunting. Whales hunted by Europeans and Americans for baleen and oil were of several closely related species and sub-species. They included:

1). North Cape whale (coast of Norway; since before the 10th century.
2). Northern right whale (hunted by Basques in the Atlantic from the 11th-12 century).
3). Arctic right whale (hunted avidly from 1610; distinction from Northern right is disputed).
4). Atlantic bowhead whale (distinction from Arctic right whale is controversial).
5). Southern right whale (hunted in the South Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans and adjacent waters; the most significant commercial mysticete prey species before the 1840s).
6). Arctic bowhead whale (Alaska, Siberia; the most commercially significant after the 1840s).

In the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras, most baleen products were from whales hunted by Vikings in coastal waters; and by French and Spanish Basques, both in coastal waters and far up in the open sea of the North Atlantic. After 1610 the harvest was increasingly from the High Arctic, primarily Dutch but also English, Scottish, Scandinavian, Basque, French, and German.

Once the Americans got into the act and developed a pelagic South Sea whale fishery (early-to-mid 18h century) -- they were followed by others in the 19th century -- the prevailing baleen prey species shifted to the Southern right; and when the American fleet finally reached the Western Arctic in the middle 19th century, bowhead baleen rapidly took over. Whalebone was also the most important product of San Francisco’s Arctic whale fishery.
By the very early nineteenth century perhaps as many as 15,000 whales were being captured yearly worldwide and then slaughtered for their bone, their baleen and their oil. In standpoint of size, suppleness, economy of manufacture, and per capita yield, bowhead baleen was by far the best and in the second half of the 19th century it was the most voluminous type produced commercially – skirt hoops, corset stays, umbrella and parasol ribs, carriage springs, buggy whips, piano springs, etc. – and undoubtedly eyeglass frames. So, too, much or most of the sailor-made baleen scrimshaw. Bowhead baleen was often called in the vernacular (English, French, Spanish, German, Inupiaq, Japanese, etc.) "black baleen"; the Japanese will still accept nothing else for springs in their Bunraku puppets; and Eskimo artisans still use it in a variety of ornamental and practical applications.

Many of the baleen eyeglass frames seen in advanced collections probably date from the late 17th to the very early 19th century. As expected nose spectacles were the earlier examples and temples spectacles were generally then made during the second half of the 18th century. The material is durable and light weight and therefore an excellent substance for the construction of the eyeglass frame. Whalebone is easy to carve and shape since it has a pliable almost plastic-like property. As such it was used in various manufacturing industries as a forerunner of plastic.

Horn and baleen are difficult to distinguish from one another, but in fact they are really quite different macroscopically. Horn comes from a cow while baleen is from a whale. Horn is found in many colors from near white to black, while baleen is typically dark grey or nearly black (some light plates have now been seen at the San Francisco Maritime Museum). Baleen is sometimes seen as cream or even white. If your warm horn it produces a strong smell and it is impossible to bend a piece of horn into the form of baleen spectacles. Finally it is impossible to use baleen to make a Martin’s Margin insert ring, which usually is horn.

Microscopically it is nearly impossible to distinguish horn from baleen (or from tortoise shell) on any basis other than morphology or DNA. A PhD dissertation at University of Cologne, Germany) circa 1997 by demonstrated conclusively that baleen, horn, and tortoise shell are structurally identical and indistinguishable in micro scale.

Even the most advanced collections may have only one example of an optical object made from baleen. A large group (six nose spectacles) exists at the Luxottica Museum in Agordo, Italy and are truly wonderful to behold in person. Enjoy all the other images in the slideshow that follows.

(Move your mouse over any of the pictures below to see a larger image.)

Baleen whale physical characteristics, from Wikipedia Single baleen plate, crème-colored, perhaps from the small minke whale, National Park Service, San Francisco Maritime NPS, # SAFR 6472, collected at the "last operating American whaling station," Pt. San Pablo on San Pablo Bay, California.  This bay is to the north and connects with San Francisco Bay so presumably the baleen is from a Pacific whale. Single baleen plate taken 50cms from the mouth tip on the left hand side of the animal. Cut at the 'gum' line, it is about 30cms in length and is shown as it would be seen from inside the animal's throat looking out. The smooth left-hand edge would be next to the rim of the mouth. The hairy right-hand edge would point to the inside of the mouth., photo credit to P.J.Chmonides, seen on the Natural History Museum London website close-up view of the hairs Baleen nose spectacles, close-up, early 18th century, courtesy of the Dorotheum, Germany Nuremburg-style single lens magnifier with a one piece frame, circa 1750, in a cardboard case with an embossed emblem, Kortland Collection, quite rare Round frame with brass bow arch, unglazed (missing the glass lenses), Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany Wooden case carved on both sides with two baleen examples inside, circa 1700 Baleen spectacles with green tinted lenses in their original wooden case, circa early 18th century, Safilo Museum - Guglielmo Tabacchi, Padua Baleen spectacles in a wooden and brass case


Whalebone spectacles with silver turnpin sides, circa 1750 Baleen specs and sable case, first quarter 18th century, Museum Fine Arts, Boston, MA Baleen spectacles with original lenses, about 1700 Whalebone and brass nose spectacles, unslotted screws clamping rims to brass bridge, c. 1730 Round frame spectacles with temple sides, original case, mid 18th century Two pair, first are glasses with straraight temple sides, original case; second if an early pair of nose spectacle sin a carved wooden case, for two pair, Ramstein Collection Basel, from their exceptional limited edition book. D. Huot, artist, French Untitled (a pair of spectacles), Page 203 of the book, Mon passe-tems dÈdiÈ ‡ moi-mÍme, circa 1811 – 1813, brush and black ink, 4.4 x 9.1 cm (image); 45 x 31.6 cm (sheet); 45 x 30.9 x 6 cm (object), Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of Agnes van Eck Reed in memory of Agnes Tillman van Eck 1991.2.35.1.23 Whalebone eyeglasses of Johann Kupetsky (1660-1740), circa 1730, Optisches Museum, Jena Baleen spectacles, temple sides,  The bridge is wrapped up by a cord(perhaps it is broken), about 1 cm of distal right temple is missing, circa 1750 Nose spectacles with a water damaged left lens, grizzled by water damage, right lens may be more modern replacement, figure of eight case made of shagreen, circa very early 18th century


a single piece and single lens magnifier, Nuremburg-style, original lens, circa 1750 two baleen nose spectacles in a German collection A drawing which represents some of the styles of spectacles and vision aids available in France about 1800, from a remarkable series of watercolors in a rare early 19th century French trade catalog. Two large volumes contain over 1,500 color illustrations of personal, household and hardware items sold in France during that time period. Both volumes contain the engraved label of Lebeuf, a stationer in Paris who occupied an address there from 1799 to 1813. In addition, a thermometer is illustrated with the date "1798" on its face. Credit: The Winterthur Library: Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera Baleen frame made into the style of single wire Nuremburg spectacles, “15” is marked on one lens, some damage, Historic New England Whalebone spectacles with cobalt blue lenses and turnpin sidebars. The frame is made of two foils of whalebone united by little nails. There are holes on the edge and on the temples that were likely for two silk shades now gone, Nuremburg, rare hand-painted canvas case with geometric drawings, Tirolean Art, Germany, Vascellari Collection Two pair of baleen in a wooden case, Historical Museum of Sanitary Art, Rome, in the Carbonelli collection, mid-18th century, from an exhibition catalogue Whalebone spectacles with an unusual architecture, note the sides of the nose bridge and the manner that the lenses are held in place, Vascellari Collection A baleen nose spectacle with hinged forehead piece. The long extension was inserted under the hat to hold the glasses in place, Germany, late 17th century Whalebone nose spectacles with brass nosebridge, leather figure of eight case, early 18th century Baleen spectacles with brass nose bridge, in a brass case, early 18th century


Spectacles of St. Giuseppe Calasanzio (1557-1648), listed in the inventory made after his death, arc spectacles probably made of whalebone, in the “Relichie Rooms” of house of San Pantaleo, Rome Whalebone side-saddle whip, plaited baleen, by Crowther, London, c. 1840 Baleen nose spectacles with a somewhat squared-off nosebridge, mid-18th century Whalebone spectacles welded as two strips and tied at the bridge after the insertion of the lenses, circa 1750, BOA Museum, London Close up showing how the lens is held in place, BOA Museum Baleen nose spectacles with their original pull-off paper mache case, bi-concave minus 13.00 D both eyes, original lenses, c. 1740 Same pair showing one side with the wires appearing The other sides of the same example, the wires are hidden Same pair viewed from above Baleen spectacles in a wooden case with a turn pin cover, Museum of Vision, San Francisco


Baleen spectacles which fit in a shagreen covered case, Museum of Vision San Francisco Bas-relief panel entitled The Bacchanalian Frolic, made from pressed and carved baleen, c. 1618-1641, Amsterdam, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, www.whalingmuseum.org .   This was made by a Dutch artisan, Jan Lutma the Elder, and also Jan Osborn, an Englishman working in Amsterdam. In 1618 the Dutch North Sea Company granted the two men a patent to produce decorative baleen panels. This particular panel simulates the ebony panels inserted into Dutch furniture of the time. Baleen plate from inside the mouth of a humpback whale stranded at Kingsdown Beach, Kent, UK, image by Jo & Tom Malpass, (Jo is a British Divers Marine Life Rescue - Marine Mammal Medic) Notice the very unusual nosebridge style, Museu Frederic Mares, Barcelona Museum of the History of Medicine, University of Zurich Baleen covering on a circa 1850 English made telescope


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