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Published Sunday, January 25, 2015

Victorian Nipple Rings

Like this lady doesn't look like her nipples would be pierced, does she?

A longtime legend in the piercing community has it that during the Victorian Era, young women from England were briefly caught up in the fad of having their nipples pierced. It was all the rage, and then it went out of style.

It’s one of those stories, like Julius Caesar’s own pierced nipples, or King Tut’s stretched lobes, that seems made up, or at least padded with potential exaggeration. It’s the sort of thing that raises eyebrows, challenges how we think about Victorian Culture (The same people who supposedly covered their table’s legs because they too closely resembled female ankles were getting their nipples done?) and just plain seems impossible.

Except it’s all true, and then some. I’ll get to that. But first, we need some clarification.

The Victorian Era

The Victorian Era extends from 1837 to 1901, and that’s the reign of Queen Victoria – who apparently had the lifespan of a Highlander — in England. It’s the time of Charles Dickens, the rise of factories and the middle class. A time when gentlemen belonged to clubs and wore top hats and tails, and ladies wore steel ribbed bustles and wasp-waisted dresses and petticoats. Popular characters who lived the Victorian Lifestyle include none other than Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

If you want to know why a lot of people thought this was a tall tale, just imagine Dr. Watson saying, By jove, I think her nipples are pierced! It just sounds off somehow.

And people were, sort of, reserved. But they did not cover their table legs for propriety, that’s a popular myth. It was also an age of gambling, drinking, burlesque shows and pin-ups. There were theaters where you could go see women in lingerie racing chariots pulled by real horses. They also had erotica. Filthy, filthy erotica.

“…suddenly letting his ***** go as she felt the crisis coming, rammed a couple of her well-oiled fingers up his ******-**** and ******* him there…” That’s a scene from Forbidden Fruit, an erotic novel. That scene, by the way, is between a brother and sister, and it goes on to include their mother and aunt.

So they weren’t as prudish as we sometimes assume. The era is associated with stiff upper lips, but it could just as easily have been well oiled fingers.

I started trying to track down evidence of the nipple ring trend,

and found plenty of other people on the trail, including some other piercing bloggers and Wikipedia. What everyone had in common was a guy named Stephen Kern, who published a book called Anatomy and Destiny in 1975.

It completely changes how you watch Downton Abbey.

Kern says, “In the late 1890s the 'bosom ring' came into fashion briefly and sold in expensive Parisian jewelry shops. These 'anneaux de sein' were inserted through the nipple, and some women wore one on either side linked with a delicate chain. The rings enlarged the breasts and kept them in a state of constant excitation...The medical community was outraged by these cosmetic procedures, for they represented a rejection of traditional conceptions of the purpose of a woman's body.”

That represents just about everything anyone seemed to have on this. But I checked out Kern’s book and the above passage was cited to Eduard Fuchs, who published something called a moral history, where he talks about the Victorian Nipple Ring trend. The problem with Fuchs was that he wasn’t big on citing sources. He was like the Marco Polo of sex. So the whole thing looked more and more like a tall tale.

That’s what a lot of people figured it was.

Then I found The Golden Age of Erotica, published in 1965, which cited the same thing, except they said Fuchs got his idea from a magazine article. A magazine article, published in the 1890s, in Victorian England, about people getting their nipples pierced, and connecting those nipples with chains.

I’m not going to lie, I let this sit for a while. I wrote other blogs. There were easier stories to tell. I have deadlines. But like a fool, I’d opened my mouth. I’d told people. And everyone who heard about the Victorian Nipple Rings was like, “Wha?” and then they wanted to know more. It started coming up in conversations. Hey man, how’s that Victorian Nipple Ring article coming? And, you know what? I was curious too. Badly.

English Mechanic and the World of Science

Something had to be done. I dusted it off and kept digging and then, one glorious day, I found the magazine: English Mechanic and the World of Science.

This isn't really a good Victorian picture. But this guy looked so much like steampunk Mad-Eye Moody that I had to include it.

This magazine is filled with informative articles about small engine repair, electricity, how to build your own bicycle, along with more complex subjects like Chemistry and Medicine. Because in the Victorian Era, you could just lump everything together and call it Science. Each article – don’t worry, I’m going somewhere with this – has a number. People write in with questions and they quote the number and name of the article. The person who wrote the article answers them in future articles.

In other words, it reads like an 800 page mail-order message board.

In April of 1888, a man named Jules Orme, a Polish immigrant, wrote in to tell a story. When he was a schoolboy, a bunch of his chums went with him to have their nipples pierced in Lycee, which is what they called High School in France. So to recap, this guy, writing in 1888, got his nipples pierced, with a bunch of his friends, when he was in High School, in France.

And because this was a Victorian Era message board, this information was received with poise, and responded to in a respectful manner.

Just kidding. People went apeshit.

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.”

This woman could very well have had her nipples pierced. Also, that baby is probably dead.

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.)

That woman? Nipples pierced. That man? Nipples, also philtrum, labret, bites and whatever else is behind that mustache. The children? Dead.

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.

This kid is alive. If you made a dead child's hair look like shark fin linguine, you'd go straight to hell.

It’s real piercing experience, 1890’s edition. Next week!

The year is 1889, and the place is London, England. When last we heard from Constance, she was writing in to English Mechanic and the World of Science to inquire about getting her nipples pierced. She had read the letter of Jules Orme in April of 1888, and in May of the following year Constance and her sister were heading to the “Paris Exposition”, which we can safely assume is the Exposition Universelle, aka the “World’s Fair” which would have started on May 6th.

So for nearly a year letters had flown back and forth and were published in English Mechanic, where several men and woman spoke of getting their nipples pierced and gave some anecdotes. One lady, named Fanny, had hers done and mentioned in her letter that after five years or so she’d taken them out.

“I should very much have liked,” Constance wrote, “to hear again from ‘Fanny,’ whose answer appeared in your number for May 10th, and to know what are the inconveniences she has experienced during her five years continuous wear of the rings. I think the troubles cannot have been very serious, or she would not have continued to endure them.”

Heedless of the answer,

Constance and her sister Millie went to Paris to do the deed. They were going to get Victorian Era Pierced Nipples.

The story picks up after they got to Paris. Still nervous about side effects and issues (And keep in mind that responses in English Mechanic included doctors who claimed these women could get cancer from doing this. Cancer) they sought out an American woman who was trained in medicine. That lady did not know anything about it, but she asked the surgeon at the hospital where she was working and he got back with Constance and told her it would probably be fine.

And then he gave Constance and Millie some referrals.

“He knew personally one lady,” Constance wrote, “and had heard of others, who had undergone the operation. He kindly gave us an introduction to the lady mentioned, and we visited her. We found her very obliging, and she gave us all the particulars we wanted to know. She had been wearing the rings more than three years, and during that time had had two children.”

This woman gave Constance and Millie the address for her piercer, a Madame Beaumont.

Madame Beaumont,

Constance tells us, is a “nice, pleasant, middle aged lady,” and she runs a kind of salon off the Rue de Rivoli*, where she does “little services” for ladies, like hair dye, nails and “corn doctoring”. She also pierces ears, and sometimes nipples.

"Yes, I'm familiar with a number of ladies with pierced nipples. Why are you laughing?"

(*The Rue de Rivoli was, and still is, literally one of the most fashionable streets in the world. Just an FYI, so you know this place wasn’t a dump somewhere)

Madame Beaumont has a huge collection of large gold rings specifically for piercing nipples, and she sits down with Constance and Millie and shows them her own nipples, which are pierced. Her daughter also has pierced nipples, and she shows Constance and Millie too, because this was before the internet and how else were they going to see?

Madame Beaumont has also invented a set of clamps specifically for nipple piercing. “Like a sugar tongs in form, but instead of the spoons at the ends of the legs there is a pair of small tubes about one inch long, and in a straight line with each other, so that when the nipple is grasped between the inner ends of the tubes by means of a screw in the handle, a piercer* can be passed through the whole without any chance of deviating from its proper course.”

(*Constance will, regularly, refer to a ‘needle’ as a ‘piercer’)

This semi-medical device freaks Constance out.

“I must confess I felt very qualmish, and almost repented having consented to it.”

But she does it anyway, because she’s the older sister, and Millie is into it and she doesn’t want to chicken out in front of her little sis.

What follows is the procedure,

Word for word, from Constance’s letters:

"There's a globe on the floor for some reason."

“I partially undressed and seated myself on a couch by the side of Mdme. B., who passed her arm round my neck and held me steadily. Mdme. B. then bathed my right breast for a few minutes with something which smelt like benzoline*, and seemed almost to freeze it. She then adjusted the instrument to the nipple, and screwed it up securely, and then, almost before I was aware of her intention, she plunged the piercer through the tubes. I scarcely felt its passage through my nipple, which seemed almost insensitive. She then unscrewed and removed the tongs, leaving the piercer still sticking through the nipple, the point of a ring being then put into a hollow in the base of the piercer, the ring was passed through the nipple and closed. The whole operation, excepting the bathing, did not, I believe, occupy a minute. I felt scarcely any pain; and only a drop or two of blood flowed, which was at once absorbed by a little styptic wool**.”

*Benzoline is like gasoline, except it’s made from coal and tar.

**Styptic wool is treated with iron chloride and is highly absorbent, it also causes blood vessels to contract slightly and thereby slow or stop bleeding.

Her other nipple was even faster and even less painful. Millie got hers done (Gave a little gasp of shock when the first nipple was pierced) and then they were out on the streets of Paris with padding on their breasts.

Beaumont told them this as they left: “… we were the first English ladies who had visited her for the purpose of having their nipples pierced, but that she had had several American ladies visit her, and many from France and other parts of the Continent.”

Constance says that when the piercings were irritated she and her sister would soak them in camphorated water, which is kind of like soda water and which M. Beaumont recommended. She kept the padding going for six weeks, to the keep her corset from rubbing against the piercings.

And that is the story of how you got your nipples pierced in 1889.