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Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Advertising trade card for Warner Brothers Coraline corsets, ca. 1890?
Corsets series, Warshaw Collection of Business American, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

The image above is no longer a “hidden” treasure in the Archives Center’s holdings, but it once languished, unseen and unappreciated, among the millions of items in the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana.  I had not seen it myself until a prominent photographic historian, Pennsylvania State University Professor Heinz K. Henisch, discovered it and published it in his book (with Bridget Ann Henisch), “The Photographic Experience, 1839-1914: Images and Attitudes” (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).  It is one of the first items which I catalogued into SIRIS individually, adding an image link.  I hope many more people have seen it online since then, although sometimes I fear that the sheer volume of online imagery threatens to bury and again obscure amazing items like this.

This commercially printed graphic adorns a late nineteenth-century trade card advertising Warner Brothers Coraline corsets.  At first glance it is an amusing but perplexing piece of incipient surrealism—ahead of its time in that sense, yet reliant on classical elements.  Two clothed cherubs, one under the focusing cloth of a tripod-mounted view camera, are seen photographing a curious object with plants appearing to grow out of it.  The strange object has the distinctive form of a woman with an “hourglass” figure, and when you realize that this trade card is an advertisement for corsets, there is little doubt that the object is indeed a corset.  Or is it a corset?  Perhaps it’s an imaginative sculptural pot for plants, in the shape of (a) a woman or (b) a corset—take your pick. 
Another advertisement for Warner Brothers Coraline corsets clears up the mystery.  It explains that this particular plant is actually used in the manufacture of corsets.  Coraline, a substitute for whalebone, was manufactured from ixtle, a plant grown in Mexico.   I quote most of the explanation:

“Scattered through the centre of these pulpy leaves are a number of round, tough, elastic fibres like bristles, which average about two feet in length. These leaves are gathered by the natives, and in a crude manner they are pounded and bruised until these fibres are separated from the pulpy portion. This is then dried and put into bales, in which condition it is shipped to our factory. Here we go over it again, carefully hackling and combing it until we have separated all the waste material, leaving only the long and perfect fibres. These fibres are then fed into the winding machine and are bound by stout thread into a firm, continuous cord.  This cord, or ‘coraline,’ as it is now called, is then ready to be stitched into the corset, which is done in the same manner that ordinary cord is stitched between the folds of cloth. After the Coraline is stitched into the cloth, it passes through a tempering process by passing between heated dies. This is the most wonderful part of the invention, and it is its ability to receive a temper that makes Coraline so valuable as a stiffener for corsets. There is not more difference between soft iron and tempered steel, than between Coraline in its natural state and the same article after it has passed through this tempering process. No starch or artificial sizing of any kind is used, but it is a development of the natural elastic quality already existing in the Coraline, and this elasticity is therefore permanent. Corsets boned with cord may be so loaded with starch or glue that they will seem stiff when new, but this will disappear after a few days’ use. Those stiffened with Coraline, on the other hand, grow more elastic with use.”

From the photographic history standpoint, this remarkable image intrigued both Dr. Henisch and myself.  It is firmly rooted in pictorial traditions of the past, while the introduction of the camera in the hands of these unlikely cherubic photographers suggests the importance that photographic image-making would have for advertising in the future.   Not so incidentally, I think it also predicts the prominence of sexuality in twentieth century advertising.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography
NMAH Archives Center

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