Posted by: Karlee A. Turner | January 25, 2011

25th January, 1846 and Foundation Garments continued: the Corset

Mary Brewster, SUNDAY [January] 25 [1846]: “Commenced with calm pleasant weather. Have read a great part of the time. Thought much of the Sabbaths which had been spent in my native land and the privileges I then enjoyed and find the absence of such enhances their value. I hope to enjoy the meeting with the dear Church again at some future period. I feel contented and happy where I am and employ my mind as well if not better than when at home.   LAT. 8.47 [Error?]   LONG. 58.35 West.”

Martha Brown (1848), Mary Lawrence (1857), Eliza Williams (1859) did not make a journal entries for this date. However, on Sunday, Feb. 26, 1860, another whaling wife by the name of Adra Ashley wrote: “It is the day of rest, God’s holy sabbath and whether on the Sea or shore we feel its influence if rightly kept. I sometimes think I prize most highly my Sabbaths at sea, all seems so still. There is no waste of time in superfluous decorations of the body, no danger of intrusion on our hours of meditation by persons who choose to make the sabbath their day of calling, but usually on the contrary we have a day of perfect quiet and this quiet seems more apparent after a week of so much bustle, carrying on the ship’s work, cleaning and painting. This week we shall paint inside and I expect to have plenty to do.”

“Stayed” Together with the Corset

Yes, “stays” or the cursed corset – bet you can’t say that five times fast. The corset has been part of a woman’s wardrobe since — well, some say it’s unknown, others say since the Egyptians. I can’t confirm or deny either of those theories, but most will agree corsets were definitely in use at least from the 16th century through the late 19th/early 20th century. Although throughout history they served different purposes. There is some disagreement over that, too. Some say they were early fetish accessories while others say corsets were tortuous attempts at orthopaedics. An entire blog could be devoted to such a discussion, but since my primary goal is to share knowledge rather than to debate, I’ll focus on the corset as a 19th century undergarment, or foundation garment.


Corsets, more commonly called Stays were cut so as to push the breasts up and out. Without the corset, women would have been unable to achieve the perfect hour-glass figure so prevalent thought the Victorian and Edwardian Era. Of course, just as the length of the chemise changed to accommodate the demands of fashion, so too did the length of the corset change from one decade to the next to provide the current fashionable silhouette.

And, regardless of many misinformed individuals, women were not all vain “Scarlet O’Hares” insisting they have that 18″ waist!  There are many primary source documents, Godey’s and Peterson’s among them, which have letters from medical professionals warning women against the dangers of corsets laced too tightly. If a corset is worn properly (at the proper level on the torso and laced comfortably), it provides great back support. I speak from experience — I wear an authentic 19th century reproduction corset twice a week, all day, when role-playing. When in my corset, I can stand for long periods of time without any back pain.

The images below are a combination of reproduction corsets/stays, photos from 19th century advertisements and various museum collections. 




 Regency Era










Circa 1810 









 Circa 1819






If you look closely you will notice stays sewn into the seams of this beautiful (circa 1825) floral print dress. Throughout the nineteenth century, it was common practice to do so, especially in Ball Gowns, as well as Dinner and Evening Gowns. However, garment stays were not intended as a substitute for a corset, but in addition to it.






1851 – 1860













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