An Heirloom Close to the Heart

Compartment on the back with two circular wells carved inside.

by Noel Grabow, Collections Assistant
May 24, 2022

A hexafoil is centered between the couple’s birthdates (left) and just above their wedding date is a crown (right), possibly a reference to the groom’s last name.

One of the newest items in MCHS’s collection is a wooden busk from 1785. Busks varied widely in terms of size, shape and configuration, but all performed the same function. Inserted or sewn into the front of a corset or stays, a busk provided support and shaping to the desired silhouette. In late 18th-century England, where our busk originated, that fashionable figure was a smooth, conical-shaped torso with a very straight front line and pointed bodice. Busks were separate pieces which could be easily moved between garments and were often love tokens of wood, ivory, or baleen. They could be highly decorated and inscribed with dates chronicling a couple’s courtship, marriage, and children’s births.

Thanks to the inscriptions on MCHS’s busk, we know it was originally worn by Sarah Kelly who married George Rex on July 18, 1785, in Portsea, Southampton, England. The couple’s wedding date is commemorated among the intricate carvings of hearts, a hexafoil (good luck symbol), crown, other decorative elements and their birthdates. Similar engravings continue on the back alongside the birthdates of their five children. Sarah’s busk also features a hidden compartment on the back with two round cutouts likely for storing coins.

The last dates added to the busk had to be incredibly small.

Sarah’s busk was worn frequently and for a long time as shown by the smoothed edges and progressive dates that continue for nearly 20 years. As time went on, the dates recorded became increasingly smaller and abbreviated, squeezed into the few areas still free of carvings. Long after Sarah’s busk ceased to be part of fashionable daily attire, it lived on as a treasured family heirloom passed down through generations of her descendants until it was donated by the Reverend Canon James Elliott Lindsley. We are honored to welcome it to the Morris County Historical Society collection!