This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Corset. [French corse, body; Latin corsetus, a close-fitting garment] A close-fitting waist, usually made of quilted jean, stiffened with whalebone, etc., worn by women to give shape and support to the figure Corsets of various forms and eccentricities have been worn ever since the eyes of man have admired the graceful form of woman. Always with one aim and object in view, and that to more fully emphasize the beautifully rounded curves of the waist and hips. They have been known by many names and in use by many peoples, but invariably for a single and selfsame purpose. The Romans knew them under the title of corsetus, the Italians, corsetto; the Spanish name was corselete, the Portugese corsolet; while the English have dubbed them successively corsete,bodice,stomacher, stays and corset. The Parliament of England in 1450 forbid the wives of persons not having the yearly income of $200, and widows of less possess-ion, to wear corsets of silk made out of the realm, or any coverchief exceeding a certain price. In the 15th and 16th centuries corsets were elaborate affairs with skirts and sleeves attached to them and worked with lace and gold. They varied in length, shape and amplitude, being occasionally lined with costly furs and trimmings of every imaginable description. The old way of fastening a corset was to lace it up every time it was put on. This required considerable time. The later plan adopted by manufacturers and the one now universally used is to have at the front a pair of steel bands that are fastened by a little catch. These little catches are made of white metal, and there are four or five of them on each corset. The weight of a set of "catches" is not greater than an ordinary thimble, yet one Connecticut firm uses about 32 tons of white metal a year to make these catches. The steel required for the stays amounts to hundreds of tons, and there are separate factories devoted to the production of the steels. The steels are tempered to about the consistency of a watch spring, and there is a surprising amount of work for 10 cents a pair upon these. Corsets, like other ready-made clothing are made of all sorts and sizes, and from all prices from 25 cents to $50 each. A full "size" of a corset means 1 inch, expressed 18, 19, 20 up to 40, and representing the actual waist measure of the wearer. Imported corsets are the most expensive of the ready-made kinds, but when made "to order" the highest prices are reached. Ordinary women will get along with a couple of corsets a year, costing $3, but when it comes to corsets made of silk or satin, and trimmed with costly lace and made to suit certain whims or different costumes, the cost becomes a very considerable item. Formerly corsets depended for their stiffness entirely opon whalebone, but when gas and coal oil destroyed the whale fishery and whalebone grew scarce and expensive, steel was introduced and substituted for whalebone. This was good for the fronts, but has never been available for the small bones at the sides. The principal substitute for whalebone is horn. This is chiefly manufactured in France from South American horns, and the stuff is imported cut into narrow strips ready for use. Efforts have been made to substitute celluloid, various kinds of wood and hard rubber strips, but nothing has yet been found so good as the whalebone or the horn. There are great corset factories at Newark, Detroit, New York and Chicago, but the larger part manufactured in this country are made in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The figures of the 11th Census show that there are over 10,000persons employed in the United States making corsets, the value of what they produce being about $10,000,000. Besides this, immense quantities are imported from France and England, the total consumption being not quite 60,000,000 a year. The names and shapes of corsets are patented, and in the past ten years there has been much costly litigation over patents that would appear to be insignificant outside of the trade.