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Tattooed ladies tell their tales in 'A History'

About Terri Schlichenmeyer

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By Terri Schlichenmeyer

Published: Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009

You like to think of yourself as a pretty even-keel kind of person, but this had you doing one of those head-shaking double-takes.

The swagger caught your eye first, followed by black leather but it was the tattoos that kept you looking, slack-jawed. The art covered arms, shoulders, peeking stomach, and probably other assorted body parts, too. Somebody put a lot of work into that ink, and it took more than just a few minutes.

That had to hurt. You thought about asking her, but she walked away before you could say anything.

Though it's common now, there was a time when that ink would've gotten her branded as a hussy, or worse. Read more in the new book "The Tattooed Lady: A History" by Amelia Klem Osterud.

While tattoos have been present on bodies throughout history, during the late 1800s even scientists thought that tattoo-wearing was linked to criminal and immoral behavior. By the time Irene Woodward and Nora Hildebrandt (the first "tattooed ladies") decided that having a body full of ink would be an ideal situation, society had relaxed.

But not by much.

This was the Victorian age when women covered ankles, legs, and arms as a matter of modesty. It was, therefore, pretty racy stuff when Woodward, Hildebrandt, and other inked ingenues sat displayed in a circus sideshow, wearing bloomers, camisoles, and not much else. In many cases, only men were allowed to pay money to gaze upon such a scandalous sight.

Still, many women decided to undergo the sometimes weeks-long transformation from unmarked to totally tatted, a process that couldn't be reversed. Once a woman got a tattoo or two, there was no turning back.

So why did they do it• Mostly, perhaps, for the money; a tattooed lady could make $100 a week at the sideshow, while the "average working-class family made between $300 and $500 a year..." She might have gotten needled to take control of her own future. Or, as many women claimed, they may have just been fascinated by tattoos.

At any rate, Osterud says, those tattooed ladies were "gutsy", and their boldness gave turn-of-the-century women the nerve to "start questioning the social codes that kept them confined..."

People who've gotten tattoos say that once you get one, you'll want another because sporting tattoos is addicting. So is this book.

Author Amelia Klum Osterud's fascination with tattooed ladies (and circus people, by extension) is infectious, and it's hard not to be caught up by her excitement in this unique dual-take on women's history via circus theme.

But solid research is only half the appeal.

The other half comes with the rare and unusual photographs that grace nearly every page of "The Tattooed Lady", including pictures of the Ladies, as well as sideshow troupes and a few tattooed men. Parents beware, though -- there is some slight, almost chaste, 1920s-era nudity inside.

If you're a carny at heart, if you enjoy reading about women's history, or if you're thinkin' about inkin', grab "The Tattooed Lady". This book is plenty sharp.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is a nationally syndicated columnist from LaCrosse, Wis. She can be e-mailed at bookwormsez@yahoo.com .

Additional Information:

'The Tattooed Lady'

Author: Amelia Klem Osterud

Publisher: Speck Press, $27, 154 pages, includes index, 2009

 

 
 


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