The History of Play Piercing 1885-1940

Here’s an article I never thought I’d be writing — the history of play piercing and human pin-cushions, from 1885 through 1940, as collected from archival news clippings. I have spent the better part of the day reading story after story in historical archives about both sideshow performers who did play piercing, and people who seemed to do it for fun — sometimes with hilarious results — as well as the different ways that play piercing percolated into the mainstream via fictional prose and cartoons. It has been interesting to say the least. With the exception of cartoons, which I have placed at the very end of this article, I am presenting here, in chronological order a number of stories that caught my interest. You’d be amazed how many brief mentions and repetitions I’ve skipped over. I never would have guessed at how much the media of the time loved writing about this subject. It absolutely fascinated them! For all of these stories, if you want to see more than the excerpt that I have transcribed, just click on the scanned headline that starts the story to be taken to the original news clipping.

I hope you will find comfort and enjoyment in the fact that many of these stories could easily have been published today. We often fool ourselves into thinking we are the first people to have a set of unusual experiences, but a careful examination of history shows that even the oddest seeming things repeat themselves over and over ad infinitum.


Note: This is a very long post, so it continues after the break. I hope it will be fun for history buffs, and that I have not made too many typos.
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Early news coverage of The Great Omi

One of the most famous “tattooed freaks” of the classic sideshow era — heck, of ANY ERA! — was Horace Riddler, better known as The Great Omi (read more on the BME wiki). I thought it might be interesting to share with you some of the very early news clippings about him — the very first I could discover was dated October 20th, 1934, and was printed in the Lethbridge Herald of Alberta, Canada. Since it’s more than a little hard to read (scanned from old microfiche archives), let me transcribe it:

MIRACLE OF TATTOOING GETS FINISH:The Great Omi, called the ninth wonder of the world, being completely tattooed head to foot. He designed the tattoo patterns himself and the work on his head alone took nine weeks to perfect. Prof. Burchett, shown completing this part of the job, considers it a masterpiece.


A slightly later AP story expanded on those comments and was widely reprinted in papers across the nation (I happened to find it in the Galveston Daily News of April 7th, 1935). It reads:

TOTALLY TATTOOED: The Great Omi, who believes himself to be the only man in the world who is “tattooed all over,” explains it by saying, “I was penniless after the war and–well, I had to do something, so I decided it should be something never done before. It has taken me three years to be tattooed from head to foot–a dreadfully painful process. I suffered agonies. Moreover, it was meant sacrificing every social asset I had. Some people would say I look pretty terrible, but my wife has been wonderful about it. She assures me it is only a matter of getting used to it.” The Great Omi served during the world war as a major in the British army.

He quickly became the most famous sideshow performer of the time and people clamored to see him all over the world. For a time — especially in late 1934 and 1935 when his tattoo transformation was complete and his popularity exploded — his name became synonymous with tattooing, and if you were a journalist assigned to write about tattoos, odds were good you’d fill some column inches with The Great Omi’s story. For example, I was reading an interesting article about the 1934 Tokyo tattoo convention in The San Antonio Light‘s December 2nd, 1934 edition, and they actually spent more time talking about Omi than the convention itself!

Convention of Tattooed People, But the Champion Didn’t Attend

Despite the fact that it is a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment and fine, for a Japanese to have his person indelibly inscribed with the tattooer’s needle, a convention of tattooed people recently was staged in the city. The alert police did not molest the delegates to the conclave because every one of them was able to prove that he, or she, had not been tattooed within the past few years, since the ban has been in force.

As the photograph of some of the delegates shows, when an Oriental makes up his mind to get himself tattooed, he does a thorough job of it and covers himself with the sort of red and blue skin pictures that seamen carry around on their arms and chests.

But the convention was not all that it might have been because the grand champion of all tattooed men–a fellow who calls himself the Great Omi–either was unable to attend or just passed up the event as unworthy of his notice.

While the convention was in session and the human art galleries were getting their pictures in the newspapers of the Japanese capital, the Great Omi was touring the British Isles and astounding people who did not envy him in the least. Not for a million dollars would the average human being let himself be so “ornamented.”

The Great Omi is one of the few tattooed men in the world who has permitted the artists with the needle to work on his face as well as his body. As two of the photographs show, there is hardly a square inch of Omi’s head that isn’t covered with a design that makes him look stranger and more savage than the wildest of African medicine men, who go in for that sort of disfigurement.

Prof. Burchett, said to be the world’s outstanding expert in the art of tattooing, supports Omi’s claim that he is the most tattooed man in the world.


I have corrected Their Annoying Capitalization, but underneath the first photo of Omi it says, “The ‘Great Omi,’ most thoroughly tattooed of humans, who holds forth in London. He has spent most of his life decorating his skin with weird designs.” The rightmost picture of Omi reads, “The ‘Great Omi’ submitting himself to the needle to put the finishing touches to the bewildering decorations of head and face.” Finally, the central picture which is of the convention attendees reads, “Six of the many delegates to the convention of tattooed people recently held in Tokyo. These animated Japanese prints are covered with designs from their necks to their thighs but the ‘Great Omi,’ now traveling through the British Isles, found it inconvenient to attend the conclave and told spectators that he is the grand champion of all tattooed people, including the human picture galleries of the orient.”

In addition to being called “The Great Omi” proper, he was often colloquially referred to as “The Zebra Man”, and then as in now, when you become a pop culture icon, you can expect yourself to be referenced in the most unexpected places. For example, the September 17th, 1938 edition of the syndicated serial pulp comic strip “Ella Cinders” (running from 1925 through 1961), which I think is as good a place as any to end this entry. Zoom in so you can read the words clearly.


The year 1890 in body modification

It’s been a very long time since I’ve done a historial “tattoos in the news” column, and I think perhaps it’s time to revive that. Today I shall cover a cross-section of mentions of tattoos and body modification in the news in the year 1890. In 1890 tattoos were already quite common and well known, and even a “trend” in some areas, among both the upper classes and among sailors, as well as there being wide awareness of body modification in tribal cultures. But I want to begin with my absolute favorite article of the year, which I read in the Acton Concord Enterprise of March 28, 1890 — although I should mention they were quoting The Philadelphia Inquirer and that this story was widely printed across North America. In short, a deaf-and-dumb girl is tattooed with the alphabet on her forearm, and learns to communicate by “typing” out words — and having responses typed back. Keep in mind that this was before ASL was standard, so there were many creative methods of dealing with deafmute communication — this is definitely one of the more interesting!

Where a Deaf and Dumb Girl Carries the Alphabet and How She Uses It

“James V. Dorpman and daughter, Lodge Pole, Nebraska,” is written in a bold hand on the register at the Ridgway house. Mr. Dorpman is a tall, well built man of 60 years, with a long beard strongly tinged with gray. His daughter is about 18 years old. She has an intelligent, pretty face and the brightest and bluest kind of bright blue eyes.

When Mr. Dorpman and his daughter first came to the Ridgway house they attracted the attention and curiosity of the guests by their strange behavior. Whether in the parlor or in the dining room, Mr. Dorpman always sat on the left hand side of his daughter and tapped her left arm constantly with two fingers of his right hand, as though playing on a typewriter. His fingers skipped nimbly at random from the girl’s wrist almost to her shoulder and back again. At intervals he paused and the girl smiled, nodded her head or else tapped her left arm in the same manner with the fingers of her right arm, the old man closely watching their movements.

The strange actions of the couple were subjects of continual comment and speculation among tho guests. Finally Borne one noticed that the father and daughter were never heard to exchange a word. They always sat quietly when in each other’s presence, and were always drumming on tho girl’s arm as if it were a pianoforte. The girl kept away from the other guests of her sex, and was never seen in conversation with any one. At the dining table Mr. Dorpman gave the orders to the waiters both for himself and his daughter. When Proprietor Butterworth met the young woman on the stairs and said affably, “Good morning,” she never answered.

The strange actions of the couple occasioned such widespread comment and curiosity among the guests that finally Proprietor Butterworth approached Mr. Dorpman while he was standing at the cigar counter one day, and after a few minutes of general conversation asked him to explain the cause of his constant tapping on his daughter’s arm.

“So you’ve noticed that, eh?” said Mr. Dorpman with a laugh. “Well, that is how I talk to Hattie. Sho is deaf and dumb.”

Mr. Butterworth asked him how he was able to converse with bis daughter by simply drumming on her arm.

“You’ll think it is easy after I tell you,” he answered. “You must remember that we came from an obscure part of Nebraska, settled there with my wife a quarter of a century ago. Eighteen years ago, when Hattie was born, there was not a house within a mile of us, nor a city within sixty miles. As the child grew older we discovered that she was deaf and dumb. We were at a loss how to communicate with her. We were far away from a civilized community, and no one that we knew was familiar with the sign manual for deaf mutes, so that the baby grew to be a child before we could devise a scheme to talk to her.

“Finally my wife hit upon a novel idea. She got a clever young fellow who worked for us to tattoo the alphabet on Hattie’s arm. The letter ‘A’ began just above the wrist, and the letter ‘Z’ ended just below tho shoulder blade. Hattie was then 5 years old. In less than a year by this means my wife and I had taught her the alphabet.

“Then we began to spell out words by touching each letter very slowly with our fingers. As the child learned we became faster, and when Hattie was 12 years old we were able to talk to her as rapidly as a person can spell out words on a typewriter. Hattie, too, learned to answer us by drumming on her tattooed arm. Of course, for several years at first, when we wanted to talk to her, or she to us, she had to roll up the sleeve of her left arm. Gradually her sense of touch became so fine that she knew without looking just where each letter was located, and her mother and I, by constant practice, were enabled to strike these letters with her sleeves rolled down.

“The tattoo was not very deep, and by tho time Hattie was 16 years of age it had entirely disappeared, leaving her arm as white and spotless as a woman’s arm could be. But she knows just where each letter was, and so do I, for I have been drumming on her arm ever since she was knee high to a grasshopper. Of course, I am the only person alive able to talk with her, as my wife died about six months ago, but I hope to arrange so that she may be able to talk to others. While we are on east I am going to get some one to instruct her in the sign manual. She is bright and quick and will soon learn.”


More stories continue after the break.
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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.


I just realized I haven’t printed a historical article in a while. Here’s one from The North Adams Evening Transcript, February 14, 1899.

New York women have a senseless and disfiguring fad of tattooing. The idea was not suggested by the much decorated arms of the heroes of the navy. Its inauguration is due to the fact that English society women are having their limbs tattooed. Recently one of the society tattooers came over from London and in his New York studio seems busy enough to be enjoying the popularity he claims. Of course not all his patrons are women, but he says that a large majority of them are. Actresses are especially fond of wearing some occult symbol, which they trust will bring them good luck.

“Of course,” said the society tattooer, when asked to tell something about his work, “I never divulge the names of my patrons. I make that a rule, even when I know the women would not object.”

“In England I had one patron, a titled lady, who came to me first to have a simple design tattooed upon one arm. She was so pleased with the effect that she came back almost a dozen times, and now her arms are almost filled with ingenious and, to her, significant, tattooings.”

“I remember a young officer whose arm I tattooed with a portrait of his sweetheart shortly before he went away to the war. The portrait now is, with him molding to dust in a grave near Santiago.”

“The favorite place for tattooing? Well, the ladies generally have the design on the arm though I know of many who have been tattooed on the ankle. A good many married ladies are fond of having the inscription engraved on their wedding ring tattooed on the finger underneath the ring. Many of them, too, ask to have bracelets tattooed on their arms. A colored butterfly is also a great favorite. I am able to tattoo in ten different colors. What an artist can do on canvas I will undertake to reproduce on the skin.”

“The method is quite painless. The electrical tattooing machine is fitted with needles whose fineness will be appreciated by ladies when I say that they are ‘sixteens.’ Therefore a tiny puncture from such a needle could not be felt unless the skin is abnormally sensitive.”

“First of all, I wash the arm, or whatever part of the body is to be tattooed, with an antiseptic lotion, which renders the treatment perfectly safe. Then the outline is drawn on with one needle, and this traverses the skin at the rate of 70 punctures a second. After this is finished I put in the shaft as many needles as are required for the shading, sometimes using as many as 60. If the design is to be a colored one, different needles are used for different colors. The same needles are never used twice, each customer having an entirely new set of needles.”

“Engaged couples very often come to have each other’s initials done on their arms. Their mutual interest in the process as tried on each other’s arms is very funny. The worst of it is that when they quarrel both parties descend upon me to have the initials erased. This is impossible, but to overcome the difficulty I trace a heavy design over them, and this hides the initials.”

“I can also tattoo a natural tint of pink upon the cheeks of ladies. It is a very delicate and a very expensive process.”

“I once had a secret society come to me. There were 25 members, and each had the secret sign of the society tattooed on his arm. They wanted to enroll me as a member so that the sign might be safe, but I politely declined, so they made me swear eternal secrecy, which I was quite prepared to do.”

“One of the favorite designs for ladies is a butterfly. Birds with gayly colored plumage and flowers and initials are most often tattooed upon their arms. Sometimes the designs are placed upon the shoulder, where even in evening dress they are not seen. On the arm the long evening gloves cover them. One of the most conspicuous tattooings I ever made was that of a serpent called about the wrist of a society woman. It was a pretty good piece of work, and the serpent looked so lifelike that I wondered at her coolness in going through life with it coiled about her wrist.”

“The length of time it takes to tattoo a design of course depends upon the intricacy of the pattern. My charges are in accordance with this. From 20 minutes to 60 hours are the extremes of time. If a very elaborate picture in many colors were required for the back, it would take me three or four weeks to complete it.”

Your kind ain’t welcome here, boy.

This story is from the Morning Herald Despatch (Decatur, IL) newspaper, dated July 2, 1897. The characterizations are kind of odd — although I do find the idea of using “heathen” to describe anyone who’s not Christian sort of amusing…


A young and dirty looking tattoo artist drifted into Quong Kee’s Chinese laundry on East Eldorado street shortly before dark last night and before he left the place became mixed in a row with the heathen and was locked up by Officers Holser and Weity. The young fellow claimed that he had gone into the place to purchase some India ink and when he offered the shirt strainer the money for the ink he refused to take it and swatted him in the face. The heathen grabbed the fellow’s coat and ran after the police to whom he told an unintelligible story and the tattoo artist was placed in the lockup for the night. The police were unable to understand the Celestial but thought from his motions and carryings on that the fellow had tried to get out of his wash shop without settling for his purchaser. From his looks the police do not think he will make good citizen of this town and he will be fired out at sun up in the morning.

Now, I’m not sure that the above story is really “anti-tattoo”, because it could just as easily be “anti-criminal”. But let’s post a story that’s later into the tattoo trend, from the Reno Evening Gazette‘s August 7, 1906 edition. I like that child protection was one of the dominion of the Humane Society!

Tattooing Will Be Done Away With

Old Custom of Sailors Has Been Frowned Upong By the Navy Department, and Practice Will Be Stopped.

WASHINGTON, August 7.— Enlisted men in the navy have instituted a movement to do away with tattoo marking, which was formerly popular with sailors. Since the conviction of a Brooklyn man, through the efforts of officers of the Humane Society, for mutilating the arms of a young boy by decorating them with India ink designs, tattooers have shown unwillingness to embellish the bodies of men who are not known to be of age, and as few adults care to have their bodies decorated, the practice may soon become a thing of the past.

The following description of a deserter of the navy shows to what extremes some men have gone in decorations which cannot be removed:
Tattoo marks on chest, shoulders, arms and back, vis: Eagle, ship, woman, flag, sailor, cards, clasped hands, flag and flowers.

Tattoo marks are a ready means of identification of deserters.

I guess the war on tattoos was as successful as the war on drugs… It just made people want them more.

A Century Ago: Tattoos as ID

I posted recently an interview with a soldier tattooing in Afghanistan, and we talked a little about the recent military bans and then un-bans on tattoos… I thought it would be interesting to share with you this story about the military use of tattoos from the April 17, 1895 edition of The Washington Post.

Identified by Tattoo Marks

Recruiting officers of the Army are aided greatly in keeping undesirable characters out of the service by the "outline figure" card record.

Under War Department oders issued in 1889, record is made by Army medical officers of indelible or permanent marks as may be found on the persons of accepted recruits for the Army. The information is forwarded to the Surgeon General of the Army. The object in view is to obtain evidence for the identification of men with bad records who have had previous army service. The system has worked great benefit to the service and is viewed by good soldiers as greatly conducive to their protection.

Speaking of using tattoos to identify people, here’s another story on identifying children, from the Twin-City News (Uhrichsville and Dennison, Ohio, October 19, 1899).

We are told that since the Clark kidnapping case many parents are having a hidden tattoo mark placed upon their children for purposes of identification. This is given upon the authority of the most noted tattooer in America, who furnishes a quality of strange and interesting facts in an article of "Tattooing and Tattoo Marks" to the October Ev'ry Month. The sketch is accompanied by photographs of the latest implements used in the art and some remarkable designs.

I have lots more stories about tattoos as identification, but I thought this next one was quite interesting, both the first part about prisoners avoiding tattoos, but more because of the part about the guy who went to prison in order to tattoo people. This is from the Wisconsin State Journal, November 29, 1899 (a reprint from The Milwaukee Sentinal).

Tattooing Out of Favor
The Bertillon System of Identification the Cause of it — Becoming Unpopular

...Since the introduction of the Bertillon system there has been a waning of the tattoo fad. There was a time when a tattoo mark was regarded as indispensable by men who made law-breaking their business. They considered it a sort of charm, and believed that to a certain extent the indelible figures that adorned their breasts or arms made them immune to arrest. But that day has gone by. The clever modern crook knows that the tattoo is a hoodoo. Under the Bertillon system of registration of the marks upon a man's body it is a certain clew to the identification of prisoners.

"There is one peculiar thing about tattoo marks," said a member of the state board of control recently. "Some time ago, when the board was hearing prisoners at Waupun, I took occasion to ask every man who came before as if he had any tattoo marks upon his body. Most of the men had, but I took notice that the real clever criminals had fewer marks than the buungling fellows. I learned that most of the prisoners had been tattooed by the same man. It seems that the fellow made a practice of securing short jail sentences in various places, and while in jail tattooed his fellow-prisoners, accepting whatever amount of money they were able to pay. You'll never see a flag design tattoo on a real touch man. For some reason the fellow who is vicious doesn't like to have the national emblem pricked into his skin. He much prefers an anchor or serpent."

Serpent you say?

“War From Tattoo Marks.”

Various entries have been posted here in the past (start at this Copyleft tattoo for some examples) about copied tattoos and the conflicts that rise from them… I haven’t found an old article yet talking about copyright in a Western conflict but I’m sure I will. In the meantime, here’s an article on tattoo “copyright” from the Elyria Chronicle‘s May 20, 1904 edition.

New Guinea Tribe Fought Because Its Design Was Copied
— Unwritten Copyright Law.

One special feature of many of the tribes inhabiting New Guinea is the unwritten law of copyright in the designs with which they tattoo their bodies, says a writer in Stray Stories.

Each tribe has its own particular system of ornamenting the body, and should a member of any other tribe imitate the pattern, it is regarded as quite a sufficient reason for a declaration of war between the two tribes.

A young warrior fell in love with a girl of a neighboring tribe; the girl favored his suit, but there was a rival in her own tribe. The rival wished to know why the girl did not look upon him with equal favor, and why she went outside the tribe for a husband.

The girl hesitated, and then replied — either as a subterfuge or as a statement of actual fact, but probably the former — that the rival was not so well ornamented as was the suitor from the neighboring tribe.

The home rival watched for the successful suitor, took note of the pattern, and copied it. The other tribe resented this infringement, and declared war, in the course of which both suitors were killed.

I love the old stories I reprint in ModBlog‘s tattoo and body modification history section, but I have to admit that so many of them are “perfect” in terms of the story being a little too good to be true (endings and all), that I often believe that the writers took about as much liberty with the truth as, well, reporters these days. Nothing changes, ha…

“A Fad For Tattoos”

I’ve found this story reprinted in a few papers. The earliest publication I could personally find it in was in The Davenport Daily Leader (December 28, 1884), but it was originally published in the Boston Journal slightly earlier.

Collecting In His Own Body Specimens of the Art From Everywhere.

I heard recently of an unusually odd kind of fad. It is in the possession of a wealthy Portsmouth man, who married an actress once familiarly known in Boston. He is a collector of tattoos. The exhibits are all on his own body, and I am told — it is only a matter of hearsay — that the collection is very rare. He is a connoisseur on the various kinds of tattoos, the methods of the tribes that wear them and their history. A new tattoo is as fascinating to him as a first edition or a bit of Egyptian glass that has survived the art to make it. Only a short time since he heard of a tribe in South America which owned a tattoo of which he had never heard before, and he started post haste for the interior of the southern half of the western continent and returned with the tattoo in his possession.

It surely has the claim of being an original fad, and it is one in which the collector is not likely to have many rivals. Moreover, it is a collection of which no one and no thing can rob him. It cannot be stolen; it cannot be auctioned by his creditors; envy cannot seize upon it, nor experts malign. It costs nothing to keep it, requires no insurance. Of course as an investment one cannot claim anything for it, but it has the advantage of being pursued for its own sake and not in any spirit that can be mistaken.

I really like that last paragraph, it’s really as true today as it was then (other than the first statement being wrong then, and wrong now). Anyway, because I like having pictures with entries, I’ll also share these two ads that ran alongside the article… maybe these could have been used for infected tattoos as well?

“When Men Wore Earrings”

In this history series I’ve mostly been covering tattoo stories (in part because they’re easy to find because the basic language hasn’t changed), but I’ll try and include some piercing and other body modification themes as well in these history pieces. I’ll start with this story from the Stevens Point Daily Journal, published December 5, 1904.

In Obedience to a Notion That Piercing of the Ears Was Good for the Eyes.

The Mohammedans [this is an archaic term for Muslims -ed.] have a curious legend to account for the beginning of the custom of wearing earrings. They say that Sarah, being jealous of Hagar, vowed that she would not rest until she had imbrued her hands in the blood of her bondmaid. Abraham quickly pierced Hagar’s ear and drew a ring through it, so Sarah was able to fulfil her rash vow without danger to the bondmaid’s life.

From that time on, they say, states the London Globe, it becomes customary for women to wear earrings. The story of Rebekah’s earrings is only one of many early Biblical allusions to the ornament. When Aaron made the golden calm, it will be remembered, he called upon the Israelites to “break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.” And out of these and other golden ornaments the calm was made. From this it is plain that earrings were worn by the Hebrews without regard to sex or age.

In our own country the familiar ornaments have been worn for many centuries, and not by women only. Charles I., it is said, wore pearl earrings of considerable value, and the day before his execution took one from his ear and gave it to Bishop Juxon for transmission to his daughter, the princess royal. Rabelais tells us that it was in his day — the era of our Henry VII — that men in France first began to wear earrings. It is worth noting that at least one existing portrait of Shakespeare represents him as wearing such an ornament. This is at Wentworth Park, Yorkshire, and shows the poet with mustache and beard, and an earring in his left ear. Lord Sherborne possess at Sherborne house, near the old world town of Northbeach, a portrait of one Thomas Dutton, a sixteenth century worthy, who is represented, says his lordship, “in the prime of life, and wearing a remarkably fine pearl in his left ear. The right ear is not shown, but presumably he wore a corresponding earring in it.”

Nowadays, in the country, few men wear them, save some sailors and fishermen and navvies. Among southern peoples their use by both sexes is more common and often begins at an early age. In Spain babies’ ears are bored soon after birth. The family doctor performs the operation and inserts a gold ear wire. Boys wear these ear wires till they attain manhood, when the wires are removed. The idea is that the procedure has a most beneficial influence on the eyes.

A Spanish lady writes: “Ophthalmia and scrofula are very rare in Spain, and the natives maintain that freedom therefrom is owing to ear-piercing.” In Portugal and Italy, and very frequently France, children usually have their ears pierced at an early age. Many men in the south retain their earrings after reaching manhood. Cardinal Mezofanti, famous as for his powers as a linguist, is said by his biographer to have worm them from infancy as a preventive against and affection of the eyes to which he had been subject.

The popular notion that piercing the ear exercises a beneficial influence upon the optic nerve is very widespread. An English traveler of little more than a century ago noticed that men in Vienna wore earrings, and was told they were worn a good deal for the eyes — “the hole in the ear and the weight of the earring drawing any humor in the eyes to those parts” — which is hardly scientific. Village folk in England believe in the good effect of ear piercing on the eyes just as firmly as their like in Italy and elsewhere abroad. In fact, in some places ear piercing is regarded by the rustics as a remedy for many troubles. At the other side of the world boys have their ears pierced from a different motive. A writer on Chinese superstitions says that that John Chinaman pierces his little boy’s ears and makes him wear earrings, for if an evil spirit happens to see him he will mistake him for a girl and will not take the trouble to carry him away.

Hey, sometimes the trend is powered by fashion, sometimes it’s powered by folk medicine notions! I wish I could dig up more information on Western piercing trends of the past — I have minor documentation of them, but because the majority predate the newspaper archives I can search (and the terms used to describe piercing are less obvious searches), it’s quite difficult.