Not only do I have a weakness for plain sewing, but for miniature things as well. Tiny garments like doll clothes, or the samples that girls made when they were learning to sew are irresistable! That’s why I was thrilled to find this half-size treasure from – can it be the 1820s? At first I thought it must have been made for a doll, but it would have required a pretty large little lady for that time, and the incredible detail seems extreme for a doll. Maybe it was a shop model, or sent from a corset-maker to a client as a style sample? It’s certainly a puzzle, so I’d welcome any expertise!
It’s seven inches in length, 12 around the waist, made of two layers of cotton sateen, bound with twill tape, and of course, hand-stitched. The silk laces are in place as found, laced closed. It’s sewn with very fine silk thread which I believe was originally white, but has now yellowed a little more than the cotton fabric. I can see whalebone inside one of the boning channels where there is a slight separation at the end. I have no idea what the cording is, but the backstitches that hold it in place are worked about 20 per inch!
Compared to earlier 18th century stays that were heavy and heavily boned, or to later corsets that might contort and constrict the female torso, this style – excluding the busk – seems pretty comfy. That didn’t stop the lectures on tight-lacing, even during the early 19th century. The Poughkeepsie Journal opined in 1823:
I deem the corset of the present day to be the perfect engine of torture, and infinitely worse than the stays of days gone by. These last besure were injurious, but they left the resemblance of a female shape; the corset on the contrary presents the waist as regularly round and untapering as a white lead keg. The olden stays I remember were laced with a silken string of the size of the finest twine, but the corset requires a cord equalling the bow-string of a Kickapoo Chief.
What on earth is a white lead keg? Well, I checked. There was such a thing. Like a metal paint bucket today – just don’t use it to draw your well water! The author insists
no other animal could survive it. Take the honest ox, and inclose his sides with hoop poles, put an oaken plank beneath him and gird the whole with a bed cord and then demand of him labor. He would labor indeed but it would be for breath. Splinter and belay a pig in the same way and a whine might be aspirated, but it would be a whine of expiration.
Assuming your ox was honest, it would probably agree with the author. Unfortunately, the belayed pig wouldn’t have a chance! (It’s not often that 19th century prose make me LOL, but that last sentence succeeded.)
In the 1820s, Dr. Godman, a physician, anatomist, and naturalist who lived a remarkably full but too-short life (click here to follow a quick rabbit trail) denounced busks – lengths of flat wood, bone or steel inserted into a channel down the center front of a corset – as especially injurious:
Another instrument of torture is added in the form of a steel or hickory busk, which is pushed into its sheath in the already too tight corset, extending along the whole length of the breast bone… to keep the body from bending forward in the centre, and to prevent the dress and corset from ‘hooping up,’ as it is called.
The following scene occurred at a boarding-house in Philadelphia. The girl of the house … filled the tea-kettle, and brought it to the kitchen hearth, where she placed it on a bench. To place it over the fire required considerable stooping, and this, as it turned out, was impossible to her. Repeated and fruitless were her attempts, by a sort of crouching attitude, to accomplish her object; there was no one present to assist or to relieve her from the restraint which prevented stooping, and in despair she gave up, and stood by the kettle as if debating what she should do. The mistress came to inquire if the water was boiling, and found it not yet on the fire! – to her utter amazement, ‘the young lady’ confessed that she had her ‘long-busk’ on – that her ‘lacing,’ which was excessively tight, was in a ‘hard knot’ and that she ‘could not possibly stoop’ to put on the kettle!
He wasn’t without humor either:
Can anything on earth be more ungraceful than the gait, the walk of a female who is extremely corsetted? From the shoulders down, as stiffly inflexible as the parlour tongs, she can only advance by a sideling shuffle of the feet, which appear to get forward by stealth…
Maybe I’ll never know what this little corset was made for. The workwomanship (assuming it was a female stitcher) is exquisite, which suggests a model, either to exhibit skill or make a sale. But a few signs indicate wear, which makes me think it adorned a doll. Maybe its history included it all: made as a specimen of skill, served as a model or sample, and then retired to spend its later years on a later doll. Of ‘corset’ doesn’t really matter, whatever its past, it’s still a work of art!