Stay busk

This elaborately carved wooden stay busk was made in 1777, according to the earliest date carved onto the busk. Later dates, 1837 and 1850, have been added more crudely on the reverse suggesting it was a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation. It was used as a love token as shown by the carvings of hearts and flowers.

Stay busks were used when women wore tightly laced stiffened stays (corsets). The stay busk was inserted down the centre front of the corset and insured that the wearer maintained a stiff upright pose, unable to bend easily at the waist or slouch. Stiffened stays were introduced to Britain by Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. The aim of the corset was to achieve a flat cylindrical torso with the bust flattened and raised, a shape that can be seen in portraits of women until the end of the 18th century. As well as the larger central busk, the rest of the corset was stiffened with reeds and whalebone.

This stay busk has a man’s face carved into it with his tongue hanging out. This and where it would be worn are suggestive of an intimate relationship to come.

This stay busk is on display in Gallery 3 in the highlights case.