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How Sailors' Love Tokens Got Into Women's Underwear

If your far-away lover gave you something to remember him by, keeping it in your underwear might seem like a good idea. In fact, that’s how scrimshaw art got into whalebone corsets. If a woman is going to be wearing stays made of baleen or whalebone anyway, a gift inscribed with love from a sailor made him feel closer to her heart -and other body parts.

“The whole concept was to give your loved one a memento, some tangible thing that she could wear or use,” says Nancy Rosin, the president of the National Valentine Collectors Association, who has 38 scrimshaw busks in her collection. “A woman would use something like a pie crimper often, and every time she used it, she would remember her sailor. Busks were huge tokens of love. She could wear it in her corset, where it would be a constant reminder of his love—probably because it was uncomfortable.”

Scrimshaw busks would be engraved with all sorts of symbolic images: A palm frond might indicate a place the whaleman had sailed to, while a North Star would assure the woman that her man would be guided home. Wheat stalks stood for abundance, houses meant security and comfort, and a church indicated plans for marriage. All of these hopes and dreams would be pressing into her torso throughout the day.

These busks were cherished in a bittersweet manner because a woman did not know if her sailor would ever come back. And if he didn’t, then his work would be a memorial. Collectors Weekly explains more about whaling, scrimshaw art, corsets, and how they all fit together.

(Image credit: National Museum of American History)

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