I recently became aware that for some time, the history of nipple piercing was controversial due to a lack of documentation. Let us pick up the story with Charles LaFave of the Bodyartforms blog:
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.
Thus opens a very entertaining three-part series of blog posts. You should read it. But lately I’m on a mania about attribution and provenance, so this is the part that really caught my interest, as Charles LaFave grows increasingly determined to track down his nipple-piercing legend:
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.
“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.
This is the exact same experience I often have when trying to track down the provenance of some piece of web-discovered erotica. Everybody gives the same vague attribution, and they all seem to be quoting the same source, but when you finally find that source it’s a nothingburger, such as an uncertain-sounding caption on a random Pinterest post.
My solution is always “keep digging!” And that’s what LaFave did too:
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.
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.
“Glorious” is a good word for that nearly-orgasmic feeling, in that moment when you finally unearth the primary source, the detailed contemporaneous account, the citation so thorough it defies disbelief. In this glorious moment, LaFave and I are brothers.
Then he takes his magazine article and spins it into three very good blog posts, unpacking references and explaining non-obvious things about the story. They’re excellent blog posts. But the payload is the account we finally get to in the third post. It’s the account of one Constance, telling how she and her little sister went to Paris one fine day in 1889 and got their nipples pierced, and what that was like.
And now, suddenly, LaFave and I are no longer brothers. Because he can’t shut up and let Constance talk! He summarizes, he editorializes, he offers helpful asides and entertaining explanatory exposition, but his one actual quotation from Constance’s letter is less than 170 words long! And there’s no link, no scan, no “here’s the whole thing so you can read it yourself.” Nope, you get LaFave’s highly readable gloss, and that’s it.
I couldn’t take it. I wanted to see Constance’s nipple-piercing letter in its entirety. Luckily, Google Play has the proper volume of English Mechanic and the World of Science. It’s free, and the OCR on the scan is pretty decent; good enough to search for “nipples” in, anyway. I did have to do a bit of cleanup on the text in order to quote it in full, but here it is:
I promised to tell you, on my return from my visit to the Paris Exhibition, what I and my sister Millie had done in the matter of having our nipples pierced and having rings inserted in them. We stayed in Paris much longer than we had intended, and only arrived at home a few days ago.
I should very much have liked 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.
I was fortunate enough to obtain in Paris all the information which I could have desired. Soon after our arrival there we made the acquaintance of an American lady, who had taken her degree in medicine, and was staying in Paris in order to study a special subject at one of the hospitals. I consulted her as to any danger likely to arise from having the nipples pierced. She could not give me any opinion from her own knowledge, but offered to make inquiry of the surgeon at her hospital. He told her that he did not think any danger would arise from the operation if care were taken not to injure the breast.
He knew personally one lady, 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; the younger of which she was at the time nursing herself, which is, I am told, not a common custom with Parisian mothers. She did not find any inconvenience from wearing the rings, neither did they seem to incommode the child, who seemed in very good health.
This lady told us that she had first worn the rings a few months after her marriage, at her husband’s desire, and that they had been inserted by a certain Madame Beaumont, who made the performance of the operation a part of her business. We obtained her address, and made an appointment to visit her. We found her occupying an elegantly-furnished apartment in a street leading from the Rue de Rivoli. She is a nice, pleasant, middle-aged lady, and along with her was one of her daughters, a fine girl of about eighteen. Madame B.’s business is to minister to the little wants and requirements of ladies, such as hair-dyeing, enamelling, corn doctoring, piercing their ears, and occasionally also their nipples. She has quite an assortment of large gold rings made expressly for this purpose, and she showed us that both herself and her daughter were at the time wearing them. They were rather larger, but thinner, than our own rings which we had brought along with us.
Madame B. has invented an instrument for the purpose of insuring that the perforation is made in the proper direction through the nipple, and without any chance of failure. It is something 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 1 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.
Our own rings being rather too thick, we purchased two pairs from Mdme. B., and I, being eldest, was to be first operated on. I must confess I felt very qualmish, and almost repented having consented to it. However, I could not now retreat, and I had to make the best of it. Mdme. B. assured me that the pain would not be great, so 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. My other nipple was then pierced in like manner. I am sure I was not ten minutes under Mdme. B.’s hands, and should never have imagined that the operation could have been so quickly and neatly performed.
My sister Millie then had her turn. She seemed to feel it a little more than I had done, for when the piercer vent through her nipple the first time she uttered a little scream; but I think she was more frightened than hurt, as she did not scream at the second piercing.
Mdme. B. charged us 10 francs each for performing the operation, and 30 francs per pair for the gold rings. She told us that we were the first English ladies who had visited her for the purpose of having their nipples pierced, hut that she had had several American ladies visit her, and many from France and other parts of the Continent. On the whole, we were much pleased with our visit to her, and glad that we had found the facility for carrying out our wishes much more conveniently than we could have hoped for in London.
Some little time after we had quitted Mdme. B.’s I began to feel sensation returning in my breasts, and before long I could have fancied that the rings were red hot, the irritation was so intense. Fortunately we were soon back at our hotel, and, hurrying to our chamber, we spent the next few hours in bathing our breasts with camphorated water, which Mdme. B. had recommended us to use. After a time the pain subsided, and we were able to dress and go about. We continued to use the camphor water for some days, as occasion served, but had no recurrence of the pain. I wore a pad made of several thicknesses of wadding, over the breasts, to prevent the edge of my corset from rubbing the rings, and this I still wear for the present. It is now about seven weeks since we had the rings inserted, and the wounds in our nipples are fast healing. The perforations are mode directly through the centres of the nipples, but so that the rings do not quite touch the breasts.
I don’t want to pick on LaFave. I still think we are more brothers, philosophically speaking, than not. His blog posts are excellent. But for me, the payoff at the end of the hunt is the primary source. I want to find it, unearth it, and display it. The source is the gem.
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