Talk about a state of denial!

I wasn’t sure if people were enjoying them, so I took a break from reprinting historical articles for a while… Anyway, maybe it’s time for another?

So on February 28, 1899, The Washington Post wrote an article by a writer who while I feel does have a secret fetish for tattoos from some of the wording, clearly feels they are low class, socially inappropriate, and generally “Unamerican”. It begins,

"Chicago's society has a genre quite its own, and while its leaders avow it is still in a formative period, I think all must acknowledge that it possesses some very striking members. One of the leading society women of Chicago, whose husband's family is not far removed from diplomatic relations, attended a cotillion recently given in the gay French capital. The lady, who is rather short in stature was gowned in a robe of brilliant yellow satin, made very short in the waist, exceedingly decollete, and only held on to the shoulders by a narrow band of satin ribbon. A gentleman, upon whose arm she was leaning in the promenade, suddenly discovered, as he supposed, some foreign substance which had fallen upon her arm, and, with an apology, called her attention to the fact that something dark had fallen and lodged upon her upper arm near the shoulder, upon which the lady laughingly replied, at the same time drawing back her shoulder band, 'Oh, no, that is nothing; I will show it to you; it is the coat-of-arms of my husband's family, which I have had tattooed upon my shoulder. My daughter has one much handsomer than mine; at which the daughter, a beautiful young girl of nineteen years, was brought over and this desecration exhibited. I find myself powerless to express my sentiments upon this and leave you each to your own opinion."

Our Frenchman, it appears, met in Paris a "leading society woman whose husband's family is not far removed" from diplomatic relations. Just what he means by being "not far removed from diplomatic relations" we do not pretend to know. Doubtless he knows himself, but no one at this end of the line does or ever will. This lady evidently set a great value upon the proximity of her husband's family to diplomatic relations, so she had their coat of arms tattooed upon her ample and alluring shoulder. Unfortunately the Frenchman does not describe the heraldic device of this Chicago family "not far removed from diplomatic relations." Very probably, however, it consisted of two clear sides rampant, with eight sausages, gules, regardant, on a field sable. Or perhaps it might have been a yardstick potent with six scissors interchanged on a field, or with fess and saltire couchant en chevron. The fact remains, however, that the sumptuous details are not given. The Frenchman contents himself with telling us that the coat ofarms was tattooed upon that exciting spot, and then goes on to explain that Chicago society "has a genre quite its own" — meaning the genre just described.

We do not wonder that the historian of this extraordinary episode finds himself powerless to express his sentiments. We feel the same way ourselves. As a matter of fact, our bewilderment covers a much larger field that his, for we pine to know what sort of "leading society woman" this was and what kind of a cotillion she went to in gay Paree. We hear constantly of these queer Americans who go abroad and are seen at entertainments and among foreigners as queer as they are. Furthermore, since we know what remarkable persons visit us from abroad we are quite prepared to believe that we contribute our share of freaks wherewith to enliven and amaze the capitals of Europe. What puzzles us, though, is the fact that we never see these astounding Americans ourselves. We are plentifully supplied with tuft hunters and toadies whose breathless and undiscriminating chase after foreigners makes food for sorry and humiliation, but one does not meet society leaders, either in Chicago or elsewhere in this country, either closely or remotely connected with diplomatic relations — whatever that may mean — who tattoo various parts of their bodies with heraldic devices and then exhibit the result to strangers. To tell the truth, we not only share our Frenchman's speechless astonishment, but we are beginning to envy him his superior opportunities of observation.

What’s funny is that even though the writer swears that tattooed people, let alone tattooed society people, are unheard of in the United States, newspaper articles about the popularity of tattooing, especially in the upper classes, were common. The Davenport Tribune had already identified tattooing as a “fad” in 1893, and even the paper the above article is from had already called tattooing “fine art” in 1895. Well, I suppose the media having a very short memory is nothing new.

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About Shannon Larratt

Shannon Larratt is the founder of BME (1994) and its former editor and publisher. After a four year hiatus between 2008 and 2012, Shannon is back adding his commentary to ModBlog. It should be noted that any comments in these entries are the opinion of Shannon Larratt and may or may not be shared by LLC or the other staff or members of BME. Entry text Copyright © Shannon Larratt. Reproduced under license by LLC. Pictures may be copyright to their respective owners. You can also find Shannon at Zentastic or on Facebook.

10 thoughts on “Talk about a state of denial!

  1. Well, Shannon, I can’t speak for everyone else, but I have always enjoyed the historical pieces quite a bit. Keep them coming, please!

  2. Oh and too I enjoy these articles. It’s good to mix in with the normal modblog entries.

  3. I, too, enjoy these articles quite a bit.

    Could it be that the American author was being sarcastic, yes, and catty?

  4. I’ve always enjoyed these articles; please keep them coming. The idiosyncratic writing styles and very different lives they characterise make for fascinating reading.

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