So while Bodies of Subversion was an interesting read, it didn't cover the early tattooed ladies enough for my liking, being more focused on current events as it was. Happily, this book was on hand to fill me in:
The Tattooed Lady: A History By Amelia Klem Osterud
Osterud's organization was superb, so I'm going to base my comments on her chapter sequence:
Their Place in Tattoo History
Osterud notes that while most histories consider Captain Cook's "discovery" of tattoos to be the beginning of things, tattoos actually have a much more complex history. Tattoos have been found on Egyptian, South American and Siberian mummies, and "recent studies have revealed... the Greeks, Romans, Picts and Celts all have a long history of tattooing.
Starting in the late 1700s, tattooing became notoriously associated with military men and convicts, who were usually tattooed by one another, often as a form of initiation. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, tattoo shops began opening in large cities in America and Europe, as it was becoming popular with the lower class. By the end of the 19th century, upper class folks started getting tattooed, and for a while it was fashionable for upper class ladies to be tattooed (in some place their clothing or jewelry would cover). Despite this trend, tattoos remained symbols of "savagery and criminality."
The Tattooed Lady
Tattooed men working as attractions in the US, starting being replaced by ladies when Nora Hildebrandt and Irene Woodward (aka La Belle Irene) were "competing in the press for the title of first tattooed lady." The 1882 arrest of Annie Boyle, who exposed her tattooed arms to other passengers on a ferry, brought such popularity that she began "performing" as well. These ladies exposed forbidden areas of skin such as their backs, legs (but not ankles!) and arms, but tried to soothe those who would be overly shocked by saying the tattoos were as good as clothing since they covered the skin.
Like I said before, the tattooed ladies had racy stories made up about their tattoos to help them sell, though most had rather ordinary lives to begin with. For example, Nora Hildebrandt's real background: born in London around 1857, she immigrated to the US to work as a domestic servant, met Martin Hildebrandt, let him tattoo her all over and took his name, and started performing in 1882.
Her sensationalized background was: born in Australia, forced by family tragedy to move, alone, to New York when she was 5 years old, she later joined her father in Utah. From there they went to travel the Wild West and were kidnapped by Sitting Bull who forced her father to tattoo her for a year, until he broke his needles to avoid torturing his daughter any more. The pain of the process made her blind, but she was amazingly cured after a hospital stay upon her return to New York, after which she began performing. Quite a difference, huh?
A new breed of tattooed ladies began appearing in the 1910s, who had been tattooed on the new electric machines. The ladies had become a circus, sideshow and dime museum standard "along with the fat girls, snake charmers, and midgets." To many women, living as tattooed women offered them freedom and income they would otherwise have been unable of getting, had they stayed in more "polite society." Despite their popularity, circuses still were considered rather sordid affairs...
The Day the Circus Came to Town
Because the average American had no clue about the rest of the world, sideshows could pretend to be educational, which is one way they got around the decency restrictions that would otherwise apply to the average citizen. The ridiculousness of the circus was all average Americans had to measure themselves against the rest of the world, since most were insulated from the world outside their immediate vicinity. Many people believed the fantastic stories they were told, using them to "define themselves and their own humanity in relation to the performer's inhumanity." Circuses also reassured the audience that they were "normal," and provided a racy thrill to those looking for excitement.
This is the way tattooed lady, Artoria, was introduced for the crowd:
Ladies and gentlemen, while you have been in this tent, you have seen numerous strange people, if you will, human oddities, freaks of nature, people who were born in strange conditions. But behind this curtain we have probably the strangest of them all - far stranger than anything we have here on the stage, because, back here, we have this human oddity who is not a born freak. She wasn't born strange; this woman is a man-made monstrosity. She was, as a young woman, very beautiful. She met and married a man three time solder than herself. He was so jealous of her and afraid that she would be attracted to some other man that he marked her body, thinking that by marking her from head to toe, she would no longer be attractive to any other man. And she is here, no longer a young woman, but now a very elderly, widowed lady. But those marks that he put on her body when she was young are still there, and they will be there for the remainder of her life. She is waiting on the stage now to welcome you.Circuses remained popular tentertainment (ha ha ha) until the TV came along and made the strange seem much more ordinary than it had before. "The last Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey sideshow ended in 1956... and its closing signaled an end to the big business of exhibited freaks."
Choices and Control
In this chapter, Osterud examines how tattooed ladies skillfully manipulated the opportunities presented to them to escape the drudgery and poverty of a working class lifestyle. She states, "Without even meaning to, they helped to change American culture for women. They were not part of any organized women's liberation or rights movement, but they exemplified the goals that many such groups sought to achieve."
Most circus women had to have a talent, like trick riding or acrobatics, and were usually raised in the trade by circus families. Others joined to become chorus girls, but they were the lowest rung on the ladder as far as circus hierarchy went. By making the unalterable choice to be tattooed heavily, the tattooed ladies were able to join in circus life, enjoying a high salary of $100-$200 a week, a staggeringly high sum compared to the $300 and $500 a year an average working class family could expect to bring in.
Having money changed the choices available to tattooed women, and many could live independently "[i]n an era when many women made so little in paid employment that they had to depend on men to help support them." They were also free of social pressures of the day which encouraged women to be "fully dependent on their husbands and restrict their work to housework and parenting." Tattooed ladies directly challenged these pressures and were able to live their lives according to their own wishes." Additionally, tattooed ladies traveled across the States and some, Europe. This type of travel was not an option for working-class people.
While tattooed ladies used their sexuality to sell tickets, booklets and even pictures of themselves in racy outfits, "they were still in control, and it was just an act. They were no more inherently sexual than any other women onstage or in the ring." Osterud feels that the "bad girl" reputation of the tattooed ladies had more to do with"the inherent sexism and sexual repression of the day" than the ladies themselves. But since the ladies used the prejudice against them to make their acts more sensationalized and so bring in a bigger audience, they were hardly hurting from the censure.
For much, much more about circuses and tattooed ladies, read the book yourself!
Tattooed Ladies (Part 1)
Tattooed Ladies (Part 2)
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