WHALEBONE, the inaccurate name under which the baleen plates of the right whale are popularly known; the trade-name of whale-fin, which the substance receives in commerce, is equally misleading. Whalebone is formed in the palate on the roof of the mouth and is an exaggeration of the ridges, often horny in character, which are found on the roof of the mouth of all mammals. Three kinds are recognized by traders the Greenland, yielded by the Greenland whale, Balaena myslicetus; the South Sea, the produce of the Antarctic black whale, B. australis; and the Pacific or American, which is obtained from B. japonica. Very many different names have been given to whales of the B. australis group, and it is possible that local races exist, whilst some writers are inclined to regard B. japonica as not specifically distinct from B, australis. Of these the Greenland whalebone is the most valuable. It formed the only staple known in earlier times, when the northern whale fishery was a great and productive industry. This whalebone usually comes into the market trimmed and clean, with the hairy fringe which edges the plates removed. To prepare whalebone for its economic applications, the blades or plates are boiled for about twelve hours, till the substance is quite soft, in which state it is cut either into narrow strips or into small bristle-like filaments, according to the use to which it is to be devoted.
Whalebone possesses a unique combination of properties which render it peculiarly and almost exclusively suitable for several purposes. It is light, flexible, tough and fibrous, and its fibres run parallel to each other without intertwisting. One of its earliest uses, referred to by William le Breton in the 13th century, was_ to form the plumes on helmets. It has been found practicable to employ flexible steel for several purposes to which whalebone was formerly applied, especially in the umbrella and corset industries, in which steel is now almost exclusively used. Whalebone, is, however, still in large demand among dressmakers and milliners; but it is principally used in the brush trade. In cases where bristles are too soft and weak, and where the available vegetable fibres possess insufficient elasticity and durability, whalebone offers the great advantage of being procurable in strips or filaments, long or short, thick or thin, according to requirement. Hence it is principally used for making brushes for mechanical purposes. The use of whalebone in brushmaking was originally patented by Samuel Crackles in 1808, and various special machines have been adapted for cutting the material into filaments. When whalebone came into the English market in the 17th century it cost at first about 700 per ton. In the 18th century its price ranged from 350 to 500 per ton, but early in the 19th century it fell as low as 25. Later it varied from 200 to 250 ; but with the decrease in whaling the article has become very scarce, and upwards of 2000 per ton is now paid for Greenland whalebone.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)