Crinoline and Whales

From Dublin University Magazine: A Literary and Political Journal, Volume 52, p.537-538. November 1858.

“As, (borrowing a mechanical simile) certain clocks with glass faces are cunningly devised to cheat an observer into the belief that hands move without the aid of spring or weight, actuated through clock-work to move them – so the mental clock-work of ideal association is far too much concealed now-a-days. It is a particular case of a very human quality, pride — the false pride of chafing under an obligation; even though it be to one’s own suggestive senses. When people are less chary of telling the world how they got at results, it will be all the better for the world. As long as the pernicious falsehood is implied of attributing to the creative faculty ideas which merely come by association, so long will there be a hindrance to the onward march of intellect in many a timid aspirant. It may abate somewhat of the majesty wherewith whales pourtray themselves to the imagination of certain people, as it may tend to lower the majesty of our own creative faculty in the estimation of others, if we honestly confess at this — the very outset of our narrative — that between the behemoths of ocean on the one part, and the idea which brought them into our head on the other part, the chasm, though seemingly immense, is spanned by that one step, which, Napoleon (him of the grey coat and cocked-hat, we mean) signalized by a proverb. Wandering down through Bond-street one day, we jostled against many a crinoline petticoat, and the crinoline petticoats suggested the topic of whales!

“Nothing like the material falsely called bone of the Balaena Mysticetus (Or true whalebone whale. All the genus Balaena yield whalebone; but the whalebone of the B. Mysticetus is longest, and therefore the most valuable.) for imparting that expansiveness so indispensable to the proper set of a lady’s crinoline. There were three formidable competitors when the fashion come into vogue in these latter days. Steel, vulcanized caoutchouc, and gutta percha they were. Vain illusions all: whalebone’s the thing! As to the first, steel is steel; and steel, if badly tempered (nay, sometimes be the temper ever so good), breaks short off, leaving a sharp cutting extremity. It is a matter concerning which reliable statistics are difficult to obtain; but we are given to understand that, certain lesions incidental to the rupture of steel-petticoat-springs, have thrown them into such evil repute, that, ere long they will be totally abandoned.

17 January 1857. Inflatable crinolines as seen in Punch“The idea of hollow, inflated, vulcanized hoops, was eminently ingenious; but their employment involves conditions so difficult to be commanded, that, no wonder, vulcanized india-rubber hoop-work soon went out. We would not by any inconsiderate criticism of ours knowingly abate one iota of the proper credit justly appertaining to the inventor of vulcanized rubber inflated hoops. It was an idea suggested by a master mind. In theory the notion is perfect ; but, alas! from theory to practice there is a bridge, and few there be who cross it. An application of the very same sort of evidence which has proved that out of no kind of wind-bag whatever, no matter how cunningly devised, can a practically good swimming life-preserver be made— seeing the chance of accidents from sunken rocks – might have awakened suspicion from the very first, that no system of inflated hoop-work: could be adopted as the basis of a lady’s expansive gear, without imminent peril from puncture and collapse— so long, at least, as pins are a sine qua non to the “ fixing” of a lady. Besides — sub rosa be it spoken, and sotto voce – vulcanized rubber has brimstone in its composition; and brimstone, when volatilized, comes reeking to the olfactory sense with evil associations!

Old Mrs Jamborough. Punch, 14 June 1862“In common with many others who take an interest in watching the application of means to important ends, we thought hopefully of gutta percha hoopwork once. There cannot be a greater mistake, though some mistakes may be attended with more important consequences. The quality which should dominate over all other qualities in ladies’ manufactured hoop-work, is elasticity. Gutta percha IS non-elastic: it won’t do. So long as a lady can move about on a field all her own – move without touching any body, or any thing – move in such wise that no body and no thing, animate or inanimate, shall touch her, gutta percha is available. But set the lady in a crowd though it be only for an instant, and she emerges the very instant after, a grotesque shrivelled-up-looking thing, as full of creases as a closed umbrella or a baked pippin. A certain expression, used by Horace in a figurative sense, we could apply to the lady, physically, after a trifling variation. ‘The gutta percha hoop-expanded belle is—

“Cere (a) in vitium flecti.”

“And having on more than one occasion felt it a part of our duty to call the attention of a fair sufferer to the existence of this state of bodily collapse, we can from personal experience testify that —

“Monitorbus asper (a)”

“is an expression applicable to each particular object of our attentions, in a purely Horatian sense. Depend upon it, there is nothing like whalebone, after all, for a lady’s expansion gear: so now about the whales.”

 The rest of the essay can be read in its entirety via Google Books here.


More crinolines! I am actually quite excited to have found this essay because in multiple sources you see references to inflatable rubber crinolines, but very little concrete evidence given to show that they genuinely existed. The only image shown is usually a copy of the 1858 Punch magazine caricature of a woman blowing into a rubber tube to inflate her crinoline, or drawings based on the caricature. Clearly, we cannot automatically presume that Punch cartoons in any way accurately reflect the reality of fashions of the day, although this particular cartoon does appear to credibly portray how a rubber crinoline might have been inflated – and this unfortunately anonymous essay confirms that they did exist. The detail about the unpleasant smell due to the vulcanizing process is particularly compelling. Although this essay does promote the use of whalebone, steel hoops became the clear overall winner in the crinoline stakes.

Previously, I blogged a 1857 Letter to the Editor about crinolines in this post with lots of great crinoline visuals.


Both cartoons were originally published in Punch, the first (with the inflatable crinoline) on 17 January 1858; the second (of the poor old lady with squashed hoops) on 14 June 1862; and are both hosted by Wikimedia Commons.


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