Baleen is the fibrous material forming the sieve-like mouth parts of Bowhead Whales. Called whalebone by early Yankee whalers, it is composed of keratin, the same substance forming fingernails, animal hooves and horns. Baleen hangs down on either side of the whales tongue in overlapping fronds called plates. A single bowhead can yield as many as 700 plates up to 12 feet long. Strong and flexible, baleen in the nineteenth century was a valuable raw material comparable to present day plastics. The most common commercial use of baleen was for women’s corset stays but among the many other articles made from it were buggy whips, umbrella ribs, fly fishing rods, and bow backing. Baleen, because of its elasticity, makes remarkable belly material for primitive bows. Today, baleen is rare and only available in Alaska where native whalers are allowed to take a few bowhead a year. At this time it is legal to purchase baleen, however, federal law prohibits the resale of any remanufactured products made of baleen.

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