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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Beautiful Busks

Fig. 1: Busks, probably American, circa 1767–1800. Wood. Gift of John A. Gergen, Kenneth J. Gergen, Stephen L. Gergen, and David R. Gergen; bequests of Henry Francis du Pont; Museum Purchase. Photography by Lazlo Bodo. (1992.0087, 1964.1569, 1964.1571, 1960.0209, 1965.2329). The collection of busks at Winterthur dates primarily from the mid-eighteenth to the early-nineteenth centuries and are most likely associated with women's dress.

by Catharine Dann Roeber


Busk: An oblong vertical strip of wood, metal, ivory, or bone used to supplement the support and stiffness of "stays" (bodice undergarments comprised of lateral or diagonal strips of whalebone or other stiff material that promoted good posture).

Busks were first used in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries in Europe, England, and America as accompaniments to undergarments worn with fashionable attire for both men and women. Commonly associated with women's attire in early America, by the end of the seventeenth through to the early nineteenth century, busks were used in tandem with "stays" because the bodice of women's dresses lacked support and required a separate, stiff undergarment to create the desired form of the body. Stays created a straight line from the chest to the waist, while busks could be added to the front to further smooth the stomach and accentuate the stiffness of the torso.1

Changes in the form of dress and an increasing fashion by the mid-nineteenth century for a curved, womanly figure, resulted in the adoption of the corset. Corsets differed from stays in that they accentuated the curves created by the bust, waist, and hips. While some early nineteenth-century corsets incorporated busks, by the 1850s, the term referred to a metal strip with clasps used to close a corset.2 While these "busks" performed a stiffening function somewhat like earlier examples, they took a very different form.

Before the mid-nineteenth century, busks were worn by inserting the stiff strip into a front pocket, usually sewn to the inner lining of the stays. While there is ample evidence that stays were made by professional tradesmen, the addition of busk pockets was probably performed at home.

Though often admired for their intricate designs, little is known about the circumstances surrounding the creation of busks. The inscriptions on many extant examples suggest these objects were made as personal gifts. However, it seems likely that a trade in ready-made plain busks may also have existed. Because highly-decorated and charmingly-inscribed busks appeal more to collectors and museums, we are left with a body of evidence that skews towards the unique rather than the common.

Right; Fig. 2: Busks, possibly American, circa 1800–1840. Bone. Bequests of Henry Francis du Pont. Photography by Lazlo Bodo. (1958.2592, 1959.0731).

Lower Left; Fig. 3: Busk. American, dated 1771. Wood. Gift of Henry Francis du Pont. Photography by Lazlo Bodo. (1958.2734).

Upper Left; Fig. 4: Busk detail, Stafford, Vermont, dated 1782. Wood. Gift of John A. Gergen, Kenneth J. Gergen, Stephen L. Gergen, and David R. Gergen. Photography by Lazlo Bodo. (1992.0087).

The elaborate decoration on many busks involves carving, painting, engraving or incising, piercing, and some molding. Common decorations on wood (often hardwood) busks include pinwheels, hearts, stars, and zig-zag borders (Fig. 1). The two bone busks in figure 2 display fine-lined engraving or incising with maritime, floral and faunal, and historic scenes. The bone and a few of the wood examples are colored with inks and paint, further highlighting the intricate designs on their surfaces (Fig. 3).

Considering busks were also used in Europe and other locations, definitive attribution of origin can be difficult. Though many busks lack a specific provenance, identification is occasionally assisted by clues from designs or through dates and initials (figs. 1, 3). A busk in Winterthur's collection, with a history of ownership in Stafford, Vermont (Fig. 4), incorporates the date "1782" and the initials "EW" on one side, and on the other, the longer, charming inscription "IF U LOVE ME AS I LOVE U THEN I & U WILL MAKE 1 OF 2 L P." This affectionate saying provides an example of the intimate nature of the messages on some busks, particularly pertinent given the close proximity of the objects to the body and heart when worn.

The attractive decoration and appealing inscriptions on some busks obscure the fact that these were not particularly pleasant objects to wear. According to costume scholars and those familiar with wearing period dress, busks dig into the lower abdomen and generally feel "awful."3 Luckily, most collectors today seek out busks for their historic and decorative qualities rather than for use. As scholarship increases on the subjects of historic dress and the early trades related to fashion, we will no doubt uncover more detail about the history of these intriguing and often beautiful objects.

Catharine Dann Roeber works at Winterthur Museum for the cataloguing project funded by the Jane duPont Lunger Charitable Trust. She holds an MA from the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture and a PhD in history from the College of William and Mary.

All images courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware.

1. Samantha Dorsey, "'For neatness, true fitting, shape and fashion': The Craft and Consumption of Stays in Eighteenth Century America" (MA Thesis, University of Delaware, 2008).

2. Baumgarten, What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection (Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002).

3. Samantha Dorsey, personal correspondence.