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Baleen has been used for many different objects, but also as inlay in furniture.
- 1 Materials and technology
- 2 Conservation and care
- 3 References
- 4 Further reading
Materials and technology
Baleen is the comb-like structure that hangs in transverse plates from the upper jaw used by whales from the suborder Mysticeti to filter large amounts of small krill and other small organisms as they swim. It looks like long hair or bristles and can vary by age or species. Species included in this group are humpbacks, right whales, blue whales, fin whales, and sei whales .
Historically, baleen has been used for centuries and more recently was a by-product of the whaling industry. It found its height in the American market in the mid-1850s. It was used as an early form of plastic because of its ability to be bent and when cooled, retain its shape. Therefore it was used for corset stays, buggy whips, combs, brushes, and in native Alaskan culture, it was used extensively for making baskets.It has been used by people for thousands of years to make a variety of objects and is found in the archaeological record around the world. It can be softened and manipulated (similar to horn) by being soaked in hot water. It holds the new shape once it hardens again, making it a versatile and durable material. The Inuit of the Artic used baleen for masks, toboggan runners, roof coverings, fishing snares, woven mats, baskets, and a variety of other practical and ceremonial objects. Europeans also used baleen for a variety of reasons until it was replaced more recently by steel and plastic. The baleen plates were known as ‘whale bone’ and were a major part of women’s fashions into the 19th century within corsets and hoop skirts. (Today, plastic pieces placed in dresses for support are still known as ‘boning.’) After mineral oils replaced the demand for whale oil in the mid-19th century, the European and American whaling industries were primarily driven by the fashion industry. Baleen was also used for stiff bristle brushes. On the other side of the world in Japan, baleen was used to make tea trays, wrap sword handles, and shoe horns. ( Lauffenburger 1993) In the 19th century, baleen was processed and sold in strips. At the peak of the baleen market, the amount of baleen harvested could pay for an entire whaling voyage. Matthews 1968 The price of baleen fluctuated dramatically from as much as $5.00 per pound in 1907 to as little as seven cents a pound in 1912. Lee 1983
It has been suggested that baleen has been used in the decorative arts for centuries. Its popularity grew as availability increased and thus reached its peak use during the height of the whaling industry. Baleen went from being used infrequently and being found only on nautical objects, to being processed, machined, and packaged for sale abroad.
Given its good working properties and availability, it is not unlikely that baleen was used somewhat frequently on American furniture, certainly on furniture made in the seaport cities. Yet, there are very few pieces known to have baleen.
The color can range from black, grey, brown, pale green, to cream. The color can vary depending on the type of whale that it came from and the location within the mouth.
Baleen is a protein, specifically keratin. Keratin is a sulfur-containing protein that forms the horn-like tissues, such as fingernail, hoof, horn, and hair. This protein is unaffected by polar solvents, but is easily broken down by alkaline earth sulfides. Lauffenburger 1993 Keratin can be softened and then easily worked by boiling or soaking in hot water.
Baleen has excellent working properties, making it an almost perfect form of early plastic. Its color variation lends itself to be easily substituted for ebony, bone, and in this case, pale green wood.
Baleen is a flexible, horn-like material from the upper jaw of the whale, and grows in plates. There are two basic classes of whales; the difference between them is defined by their feeding mechanism. Toothed whales feed by tearing their food and baleen whales feed by the special filtration created by the baleen. Baleen grows in triangular sheets that can reach lengths of 10-14 feet. The flat surface of the baleen is smooth with visible ridges and looks like horn; the inner surface of the baleen resembles coarse hair.
It can be particularly difficult to positively identify baleen by sight alone. The following methods can help with the identification process.
If in doubt that a line inlay is wood or a proteinaceous material such as baleen or horn, two simple tests can determine if a material has a protein component. First, with heat (hot needle), baleen will give the odor of burn hair. Second, sodium hyperchlorite will slowly disintegrate a small sample of baleen.
Under magnification baleen shows a three-part structure: a central section of tubulars, a cementing mixture and the horny outer layer. Positive identification of baleen is made easier if all three characteristics are present, but this is not always necessary.
Other methods for identification
First of all, different colors of baleen auto-fluoresce differently. For instance, black baleen may fluoresce bright blue, while grey-green baleen may fluoresce white, similar to fingernails.
Second, the length of the baleen can be the only positive way to differentiate it from horn. If the inlay in question is less than 12 inches long, it could be horn. If it is long, say 20˝–25˝ in length, horn is not a possibility, yet baleen is.
FTIR analysis will only yield results consistent with keratin but cannot distinguish between horn and baleen.
Because baleen is a protein, it is vulnerable to insects, fungal growths, and bacteria. It often does not usually survive in an archaeological buried environment unless it is in the Artic.
Conservation and care
This information is intended to be used by conservators, museum professionals, and members of the public for educational purposes only. It is not designed to substitute for the consultation of a trained conservator.
- To find a conservator, please visit AIC's Find a Conservator page.
- To learn how you can care for your personal heritage, please visit AIC's Resource Center.
Baleen artifacts are in a vast number of collections, and as technology and the treatment techniques improve, conservators will be able to ensure their long term survival for future generations.
A controlled storage environment is crucial to long term survival of baleen in museum collections. It is sensitive to rapid changes in relative humidity which can lead to delamination and splitting. Baleen storage relative humidity should never exceed 60 percent. Alkaline or acidic display and storage materials should never be used for baleen artifacts, as a pH neutral environment will prevent some chemical reactions. Also, over exposure to harsh lighting or dramatic temperature fluctuations are not good for the artifacts. ( Quills 2014)
Some conservators have tried immersing water logged delaminated pieces in hot water and then used consolidators such as acrylic emulsions and acrylic colloidal dispersions and this seems to work. Dry baleen artifacts would have to be completely soaked in hot water in order to regain their flexibility, but this in turn could damage or alter the structure of the original artifact and should therefore be avoided. ( Lauffenburger 1993 )
Stabilization of decorative elements
Lauffenburger, Julie, A. 1993. Baleen in Museum Collections: Its Sources, Use, and Identification. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation. Volume 32, Number 3.
Lee, M. 1983. Baleen Basketry of North Alaskan Eskimo. Barrow, Alaska: North Slope Borough Planning Department.
Matthews, L.H. 1968. The Whale. New York: Crescent Books.
“Quills, Horn, Hair, Feathers, Claws, and Baleen.” 2013. Minnesota Historical Society.  (accessed 04/09/13).
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