The Tattooed Lady by Amelia Klem Osterud
When Amelia Klem Osterud started investigating women’s labour history, her personal interest detoured her to tattooed Native Americans and then into the history of tattooed women. I’m sure I am not alone in my fascination with tattooed ladies of the late 1800’s who started to appear as exotic attractions and was overjoyed to discover Osterud’s book that is dedicated to their memory.
The Tattooed Lady starts with a history of tattooing in general but paying close attention to periods of time where the existence of tattooing is less widely known, such as during the Greek and Roman eras. She explains how tattoos morphed from a way of branding slaves to an open sign of religion or spirituality. But it is during the late 19th century where the tattooed lady truly appears in the history books for two dramatically different reasons. Small delicate tattoos such as flowers and butterflies were becoming very popular with women (including Winston Churchhill’s mother) but any more than this was still seen as a sign of having criminal tendencies, deviancy and for women was often considered a sign of being a prostitute. These presumptions were ‘confirmed’ by highly inaccurate scientific research of the time by Cesare Lembroso who thought he had identified connections between tattoos and criminal activity in his paper ‘The Savage Origins of Tattooing.’
It was 1882 that saw the emergence of what is now seen as the traditional tattooed lady, promoting themselves as sideshow attractions. The first two recorded ladies of ink were Nora Hildebrandt and Irene Woodward, both claiming to be the first tattooed lady. These were savvy working-class women who saw a niche in the entertainment market and had the guts to fill it. To explain their look, add impact to the act and maintain the ladies reputations, a number of similarly themed stories were crafted about how they came about their decoration. In the very early 1900’s these tales were generally based around torture or punishments of some type, the woman having been kidnapped by Indians and tortured with tattoos or a father forced by savages to tattooed his daughter. Thanks to these stories the women were also seen as strong survivors, victims that made it through the tough times and were treated with dignity and respect. This is confirmed by how the tattooed lady, Irene Woodward was described in 1882 by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, as ‘Punctured…Purity…Nature and Art Perfected — a beauty.’
The Tattooed Lady by Amelia Klem Osterud is a difficult book to find but if you can track a copy down it really is worth the investment. The book is penned with such obvious passion for the subject and respect for the women it documents that it leaves you quite in awe of these unassuming icons. The women between these pages paved the way for every tattooed lady today and this book really is a bible for anyone wanting to know more about them. The numerous photographs of tattooed women through the ages are mesmerising, documenting not just artistic changes in tattooing but cultural ones too. Although I have read numerous non-fiction books on tattoos, it is safe to say that this is my favourite due to it’s in-depth research and attention to detail. This is a truly unmissable book for tattooed women everywhere.
Buy The Tattooed Lady by Amelia Klem Osterud