Where do bone folders come from?

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently returned from my summer vacation to the Midwest. One of the stops during our National Park loop included Mount Rushmore (in case you didn’t know, it’s ginormous). I’m thankful that I didn’t have any big head nightmares on my trip. Nightmares in tents are no fun.

When I visit a National Park, I am a faithful exhibit reader. I will read every little sign and look at every piece of history I can. I consider myself a knowledge sponge. So I’m going through the exhibits at Mount Rushmore and I come across the piece below.

Bone folder

I immediately turn to my husband and ask, “What does that look like to you?” He replies, “A bone folder.”

Of course he knows if I’m asking him a question like this, then the answer on the accompanying signage can’t possibly provide the answer I want.

If I remember correctly, the piece was in an exhibit including Native American artifacts. This really got my brain churning – where did the bone folder come from? I can see how using the tool as an awl could evolve into something more bone folder-y.

I engaged in a bit of the Google and found this on (it seems to be the only page in English):

Library lore (which often means it’s really not true) states that the original bone folders were taken from the corset stays of early pupils of Melville Dewey at Columbia U. Hence, they are “bone folders” because they were made from baleen, a cheap bone-like substance taken from the mouths of whales and used for corset stays, rulers and other functions, very prevalent during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

While I like this story, I’d rather get more solid information. Does anyone know where bone folders originated? It’s almost as big a mystery as babies!

2 Responses to “Where do bone folders come from?”

By Carol - 26 June 2010 Reply

I’ve heard that about corset stays but have no idea of the truth of the story. Very interesting that you came across the ‘awl’ – I’m not surprised you were surprised. I’ve heard of a (long dead) binder who made his folders from turtle shell; you can’t do that any more. I’d like to know more too.

By Elissa - 5 July 2010 Reply

Carol –

I Googled “corset busk” and found this website:

It looks like a bone folder to me, but it still doesn’t explain how (or if) it made a transition from this use to bookbinding.


So what do you think? I'd love to know!

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