Victorian Nipple Rings – Part Two
The letter that Jules Orme sent in to English Mechanic is astounding not only because it reveals an entire world of piercing culture in the 1890’s, but also because of the reactions it elicited. Sure, there were some doctors who chimed in, saying that piercing the nipple might cause a cicatrice, and that cancer could spread into such a cicatrice.
(Cicatrice is an old timey word for “scar”)
But it also generated responses like this one, from a lady named Constance, “My cousin Jack showed me the letter, and he is very desirous that I should have mine pierced and rings inserted.”
If you’re thinking Constance and her cousin Jack have an oddly close relationship, you are correct, they are apparently getting married during the following summer. But ignore that gross old timey detail, and you get a guy, telling his fiancé, that he wants her to have her nipples done.
Crazy, right? Wait, it gets better:
“I laughed at the idea, and said I did not believe the thing was possible; but he showed me that he was then wearing himself in his nipples some gold rings which were inserted last summer by a jeweler in London.”
Her cousin/fiancé ripped open his own bodice to reveal that he already had his nipples pierced. And if this sounds implausibly wild, just know that he isn’t the only one. In addition to Jules Orme, who said he had his nipples pierced with some of his school friends (And who also, in his letter, mentioned seeing a Polish woman with hers done as well), there’s Constance’s fiancé/cousin, and this lady named Fanny:
“Ever since I have had breasts I have worn rings which I had inserted in the nipples at the request of an intimate friend. I am now aged 20.”
And this guy:
“I have had personal experience of the matter, and have still several places where rings or wires could be inserted. But I should not like to have rings in my breasts, because I like a good rub down with a rough towel.”
And during the course of this discussion, absolutely no one says, “WTF? What are you guys talking about? Nipples? Piercing? What?” Nobody says that. Doctors chimed in to say it was bad to risk an infection (And since there weren’t any antibiotics, that was a real risk) and a number of learned men suggested that having nipples pierced would interfere with a woman’s primary duty, namely to feed children with said nipples.
Fanny addressed that complaint thusly, “[I am] the mother of a healthy family, and have experienced no difficulty in nursing all my children myself.” And Fanny had her nipples pierced for five years at that point, meaning she was originally 15 when they were done. That’s a little early, particularly at the urging of “an intimate friend” but it was the 1890s, so her intimate friend was probably both a blood relative and her fiancé.
The point is that Jules Orme’s letter opened up not only a world of Victoriana that includes the concept of getting nipples pierced, but a world where these things are common, well understood practices that elicit some indignation, but not much more than you’d get today from your conservative uncle who reminds you that your tattoos might look gross when you’re 80. (Or maybe when you’re 80 we’ll live in a world where your value isn’t determined by your appearance. Or you could get some clock tattoos and they’ll sag like Salvador Dali paintings. Back to the article.)
One notable complaint included the following, “In a savage country, where the natives are in the habit of leaving the breasts bare, one could understand the desire for adornment. But in England, where it is only the custom to expose about half, and when the rings would necessarily not be shown for decency’s sake, it is simply idiotic and absurd.”
In case you were wondering how much breast was exposed in Victorian England, the answer is “about half”. Also, for those playing Victorian Bingo, you can X out the word savage.
Doctor Cicatrice chimed in to say this, “That any sane person would either abuse themselves or recommend others (especially females) to do so, is something to be wondered at.”
The language they’re both using is very telling. One guy is saying, Sure, if your whole breast was exposed, then it would make sense. And the doctor is saying, This is a bad idea, but definitely if you’re female don’t pierce your breasts. In other words, they’re comfortable with the idea of piercings, under certain circumstances. So these guys might actually be less judgmental than your crazy uncle.
And those are the people on the negative side.
On the positive side, take this point from Rough Rubdown Towel Guy, “I am well aware that almost any portion of the skin may be safely pierced.” This guy has multiple piercings, and seems to know a lot about where and what you can have pierced, for a dude living in 1890. He goes on to suggest that rather than having her nipple pierced directly, Constance should have the skin just above the nipple pierced, so that the ring hangs down over the nipple, “like the setting of a jewel.”
Fanny, who has raised a family with her nipples pierced, also said, “I wish to draw “Constance’s” attention to the fact that my nipples were skillfully pierced.”
And this is probably the biggest, most important thing I’ve gleaned from the research. Even in the 1890s, the best advice people had was to seek out an experienced piercer. Not only did such people exist, but they had parlors and studios even back then, where piercings were done by experts. So these weren’t random people piercing themselves.
Constance’s fiancé/cousin had his done by a jeweler in London. Jules Orme went to a French piercer, Fanny had hers done by someone ‘skilled’ in piercings.
And next week, in Victorian Nipple Rings Part Three, I have a special treat. After the discussion in English Mechanic, Constance and her sister went to Paris and got their nipples pierced together in a French piercing studio, and she tells the whole story. The piercing process, the pain, the studio, the piercer, the aftercare.
It’s real piercing experience, 1890’s edition. Next week!
Part One — Part Three