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.
Whalebone. The inaccurate term applied to the horny blades which take the place of teeth in the mouths of balaena whales. These blades are from three to twelve and fifteen feet long, and serve the purpose of retaining the small fishes which compose its food. It is said from 250 to 300 of these plates or bones are found in the mouth of a full-grown whale, and that they weigh nearly a ton. Whalebone is not bone, but bears a strong resemblance to the horns of cattle and the nails and hair of other animals. In preparing the raw blades for commercial purposes, they are first boiled in water for several hours, until soft enough to cut easily with a knife. The workmen then cuts them into different lengths and thicknesses, after which they are dyed black. Whales furnishing the right quality of whalebone have become very scarce of late years, owing to the steady annual slaughter which has been kept up since 1854. The catch of whalebone by our whaling vessels for the year 1854 was 3,445,200 lbs; 1860, 1,337,650 lbs; 1870, 708,000 lbs; 1880, 454,028 lbs; 1891, 309,710 lbs. The average price of whalebone in the raw state for the year 1854 was 34 cents per pound; 1860,55 cents per pound; 1870, 85 cents per pound; 1880, $2 per pound; 1890, $4.22 per pound; 1892, §5.50 per pound. These figures show that the supply is rapidly diminishing, and that the use of whalebone for the many purposes where it is now considered indispensable must soon be a thing of the past. The entire product could be consumed many times over, for any one of the uses for which it is particularly adapted. Prices being out of all reason, the corset and dressmaking trades have been obliged to cast around for substitutes which would answer the purpose as a stiffener for dress waists and corsets. French horn has been utilized to a moderate degree, but its high cost has limited its general use. Coraline is another article which is largely used. Watchspring steel for dress stays has probably received as general recognition as anything, and is to-day doubtless the leader for such uses. The material known as featherbone is also used to a large extent. It is conceded, however, that nothing has yet been produced which answers all purposes as well as the old reliable whalebone.