The On-Line Museum and Encyclopedia of Vision Aids.
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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.)