It’s likely that you picture Victorian times as fog-ridden streets, constrictive clothing, and oppressive principles and ethics. However, tattoos have always played a significant role in counter-culture wherever oppression exists.
In Victorian America and Europe, this manifested itself in a number of ways.
After the Civil War in North America: The Emergence of Tattoos as a Fashionable Trend
Tattoos began to gain popularity in North America in the late 1800s, with sailors returning from their travels in the Pacific with tattoos. Tattoo artists began to set up shops in major cities such as New York and Chicago, and tattooing became a popular form of entertainment.
During this time, tattoos were often associated with criminality and deviance. However, they also had a more positive connotation among certain groups. For example, some upper-class young adults in the late 1800s got tattoos as a form of fashion and self-expression. This trend was particularly popular among women, who would often get small tattoos on their hands, necks, or ankles. These tattoos were often inspired by the aesthetic of Japan, which was becoming popular among upper-class society at the time.
According to a 2013 article in the New York Times, tattoos became fashionable among upper-class young adults soon after the Civil War. The article notes that “the first fashionable American women to get tattoos were nearly all born in the 1860s and 1870s, soon after the Civil War, and they were generally considered eccentric.” The article cites research by the Smithsonian Institution, which found that “in the late 19th century, the first women to get tattoos were typically from wealthy and aristocratic families.”
Tattooing in Victorian Europe
During the Victorian era, tattoos were considered taboo and associated with criminal behavior. However, this did not stop members of the upper class from getting tattoos. In fact, it was quite common for members of the royal family and the aristocracy to get tattooed. The reasons for getting tattoos varied, but many people got tattoos as a way of expressing their individuality or showing their allegiance to a particular group or cause.
Members of the royal family were some of the most prominent tattoo enthusiasts during the Victorian era. For example, King Edward VII had a tattoo of a Jerusalem cross on his arm, while his sons, Prince Albert and Prince George, both had tattoos as well. Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Alexandra, was also known to have a tattoo of a snake on her wrist.
In addition to royalty, many members of the aristocracy were also tattooed. Lady Randolph Churchill, the mother of Winston Churchill, had a snake tattoo on her wrist, while Lady Colin Campbell had a small tattoo of a heart on her chest. Other famous tattooed members of the aristocracy included Lady Harriet Manners and Lady Florence Norman.
The Social Stigma of Tattoos
Despite the popularity of tattooing among the upper class, tattoos were still associated with criminal behavior and social deviance. People with tattoos were often looked down upon and considered to be part of the lower class. This led many upper-class individuals to keep their tattoos hidden from society.
Sounds familiar, right? Over a century later, people still feel socially stigmatized when they adorn their bodies with tattoos. The trend is shifting as body modifications become more commonplace. While the stigma persists, tattoo collectors can at least imagine that they’re rebellious royal Victorians.