A 17th century box

Among the many artefacts to be displayed in the exhibition TIMESCAPE 1600-1914 is a richly decorated box dating from around 1660, assembled from wide strips of baleen.

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Film: Stian Nybru/Norsk Folkemuseum.

  • En eksklusiv kløpinne av hvalbarde og ben fra ca. 1700. (Foto/Photo)
    An exclusive baleen and bone scratching stick from ca. 1700. Haakon Harriss / Norsk Folkemuseum

The box has carved motifs of ships, animals, birds, plants and people. The images allude to hunting, shipping, trade and exotic destinations. A person sits beneath a palm tree, smoking tobacco which at the time was a relatively new stimulant in Europe. Tobacco was introduced to Norway in the early 1700s. The goddess of fortune, Fortuna, is depicted naked, with a characteristic drape flung around her body. She was a significant symbolic figure in shipping, and many a vessel has been named after her. The box has carvings of several large sailing ships creating a richly decorated surface.

The box originally had a lid, and was probably used for keeping valuable personal items, possibly wigs or hats of various descriptions. Wigs and headwear were important markers of social standing and class, and considerable care was taken with their storage. Baleen was an exclusive material and less used than for example wood. Sadly, we do not know who originally used this box.  

  • Rokokko pikekjole på Norsk Folkemuseum (Foto/Photo)
    Baleen stays provide rigidity to the waist of Magdalena Elselena Wensell’s child’s dress from ca.1785. A copy of the dress is being made for the exhibition. Anne-Lise Reinsfelt/Norsk Folkemuseum

Similar boxes from the 1600s are known from the north-western part of the Netherlands, where whaling, also in the areas around Spitsbergen, was an important source of income. Such boxes may have been made by the crew on whaling ships to keep them occupied when not working. The engraved letter “A” may be the initial of the creator of this box.

Whaling is a controversial topic, but whales were for a long time an important source of material for the making of a wide range of articles in daily use which today are mainly made from other materials. The whale was utilised in various ways. Whale oil in particular was an important trading article, used for things like soap and lamp oil.  Gradually the demand for baleen also increased. The flexible material had many applications, for example fashionable parasols, corset stays and fans