Tattooed Ladies Defined Outer Boundaries of Changing Society
By Jessica McBride
Amelia Klem's eight tattoos and undergraduate emphasis in the arts spurred her desire to investigate the history of tattooing for her master's thesis in history. Wanting to explore tattoo history from a feminist perspective, Klem was drawn to a virtually ignored historical period: The American "tattooed ladies" of the circus, sideshow, and dime museums.
In giving these largely forgotten tattooed ladies a voice, Klem found that their reasons for shattering cultural taboos were often more practical than modern theories predicted.
"I kept reading information about tattooing being tied to body image and self expression-things that people put on these women," Klem says. "But sometimes it's misleading to put modern labels on people of the past."
Through personal interviews with modern-era tattooed ladies (her research covered 1882-1995), and with the help of extensive archives at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., Klem found that the tattooed ladies were driven by simple and pragmatic reasons.
"I initially wanted to find out why they did it," she said. "They did it for the money and because it was a good job opportunity." Too often, she feels that historical researchers overly fixate on complex explanations when the truth might be simpler.
Although researchers had extensively explored the American circus and sideshows, the tattooed ladies had largely been written out of history. Klem used the skills she obtained through her master's in library and information science and library services assistant position at the UWM Libraries to pull their colorful stories out of scant information. She plumbed the name indexes of 1800s-era performance and theatrical newspapers, for example, because tour companies would print their rosters.
The tattooed ladies were decorating and exposing their bodies when Victorian conventions mandated modesty. But tattooed ladies such as Annie Howard, Irene Woodward, and Lady Viola often found themselves in the middle of fictional narratives designed to soften their nonconformity.
They were always called tattooed "ladies" instead of women, were often paired with tattooed men, were the subject of advertising campaigns that emphasized their virtuosity, and were forced to claim they had been tattooed against their will. Sideshows helped viewers determine their own normality by measuring it against the abnormality of performers, Klem writes. Tattoos were equated with sex, sailors and "ruthless savages," and the tattooed ladies especially were defining the outer boundaries of changing society.
Exhibitions of tattooed people dated to 1774 but only four women had risen to fame as tattooed ladies before 1900, with the first two exhibiting themselves in 1882 in New York. Nora Hildebrandt may have been the first tattooed lady. In a story similar to the other tattooed ladies, she was either the daughter or wife of a working-class German immigrant tattoo artist and she claimed that her "father forcibly tattooed her after both were captured by 'red skin devils' of the Wild West." Her tattoos were of birds and flowers.
Working class women in the tattooed ladies' heyday could toil in factories, as domestics, or as prostitutes. But tattooed ladies could make up to $300 a week. "In an era when many women made so little in paid employment that they had to depend on men to help support them, tattooed ladies were able to break free of financially dependent relationships," Klem finds.
In doing so, these tattooed pioneers paved the way for the present-day era when tattoos are common, even for women (like Klem herself). The last tattooed lady retired in 1995 because the custom had simply become too accepted to be profitable in a sideshow.
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