Under the Corset: The Brief Fad of Victorian Nipple Piercings (Note: female nudity)

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Note: If you haven't already noticed from the title, there's a fair bit of Victorian nipples on this blog post. I toyed with the idea of censoring the images but, frankly, I don't much agree with the weighting of female chests as inherently unacceptable and it seemed ethically off as soon as I opened up photoshop to do it.
That said, take note that the images here are NSFW, rightly or wrongly.


They say there's nothing new under the sun...

Heck, in a way, this post isn't entirely new; I in fact looked into piercings as the very first post on this humble blog. But you would be forgiven for thinking that some of the edgier elements of body modification are quite modern inventions, at least in the European-American 'west'. 

Victorian nipple piercing is a controversial slice of history, namely because it's difficult to verify. As with any of the more curious elements of history, typically very little is written about them and, when it comes to controversy, most things are hidden (as with the 'he's at home') or entirely destroyed after the owner's retirement or death for the sake of decency.

The story is that from the 1890s through to the 1900s there was a short lived fashion fad of Victorians piercing their nipples, with references to this fad appearing in several history books on body adornment. 
Some of the benefits of nipple piercings were for fashion's sake, with the practice originating in Paris, or were thought to maintain a pleasant bust shape and even improve their size. For many, as now, the boost of sexual confidence and titillation was also an important factor in their choice. However, in a time before antibiotics there were serious risks of infection and some doctors even associated nipple piercings and the resultant scabs with the development of cancer. Nevertheless, this didn't necessarily deter people and the practice was increasingly fashionable.

But is there any evidence to back up the rumours?

As mentioned, primary sources are hard to come by and certainly there does not seem to be enough to justify a very widespread fashion trend as some historians are excited to suggest. There are several detailed references to nipple rings specifically though, and you can find the most extensive description in Charles la Fave's brilliant three-part article on the BodyArtforms blog. This source was also highlighted in Anatomy and Destiny  by Stephen Kern. 
Here, they tracked down the Victorian magazine English Mechanic and the World of Science, which outlines the whole piercing experience of two sisters who were headed out to the "World's fair" in Paris in may 1889. They entered into a long correspondence with other readers of the magazine who openly and frankly discussed their own experiences with nipple piercings. But for a doctor's warnings of cancer and possible impairment of breastfeeding, the responses they received were overwhelmingly matter-of-fact and positive. There was no outrage or even stunned curiosity, and women who also wore piercings were happy to frankly tell them about their own successes with breastfeeding their children while wearing the piercings. They, as now, simply advised that they seek out someone experienced and skillful. The sisters decided to go ahead and when they went to Paris they immediately sought out the services of a Madame Beaumont to make an appointment.

We found her occupying an elegantly-furnished apartment in a street leading from the Rue de Rivoli…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 their nipples. She has quite an assortment of gold rings made expressly for this purpose, and she showed us that both herself and her daughter were at the time wearing them
…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 sugar tongs in form, but instead of 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…
I partially undressed and seated myself on a couch by the side of Madame B, who passed her arm round my neck and held me steadily. Madame 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 niple, and screwed it up securely, and then, almost before I was aware of her insertion, she plunged the piercer through the tubes…
She then unscrewed and removed the tongs, leaving the piercer still sticking through the nipple, the point of the ring being then put into a hollow in the base of the piercer, the ring was passed through the nipple and closed…we spent the next few hours bathing our breasts with camphorated water, which Madame B had recommended us to use…after a time subsided we were able to dress and go about.
Clearly Madame Beaumont was an experienced professional, working to keep the ladies sanitary and in comfort. Overall, it was a very positive experience for the two of them.

So was this truly a fashion trend?

It's unlikely that this was a widespread fad and is more likely to have been at least as niche as it's regarded now, though well understood in the right circles and very fashionable. In the end, the fact that it exists at all, and that many 'prim and proper' Victorians may have enjoyed it is really quite the eye opener. As we've often said around here, throughout history people are people and are just as creative and 'naughty' as we are nowadays.

If you're interested in the wilder side of victorians and don't mind adult NSFW content, the tumblr blog 'Those Naughty Victorians' is a fantastic archive of Victorian porn that is sure to put a smile on your face. In fact, all the images I've used are from the blog


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