A Mystery: Romantic Tattoos

The Problem:

As sometimes happens when reading Romantic literature, I recently came across a chance reference to something that seemed uncannily modern. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft begins suddenly to comment on the practice of tattooing among “weak-minded” women:

I agree with Rousseau that the physical part of the art of pleasing consists in ornaments, and for that reason I should guard girls against the contagious fondness of dress… When the mind is not sufficiently opened to take pleasure in reflection, the body will be adorned with sedulous care; and ambition will appear in tattooing or painting it.

A Romantic-era girl imprudently reading a novel
A Romantic-era girl imprudently reading a novel

What?! Wollstonecraft!! Should I be adding sleeve tattoos to my mental image of flighty young ladies prancing around Almack’s in gauzy empire-waist dresses?

The mystery was compounded a few weeks later when I was reading John Keats’s Anatomical and Physiological Note Book (1815), which the poet kept during medical school. Transcribing the lectures he heard from Astley Cooper and other practitioners at Guy’s Hospital in a series of very brief notes, Keats makes a casual reference to the physiology of the tattoo:

Carbon is not soluble in the animal fluids and therefore the marks of tattooing are never removed.

Since when was tattoo removal a concern for Romantic doctors-in-training? Did Keats’s instructors really expect this tattoo-related conversation to take place between physician and patient?!

More generally, were tattoos commonplace during the era of British Romanticism, and, if so, why don’t we know more about them?

The Answer:

In fact, we know very little about tattooing practices between 1789 and 1824; most of what we do know about tattoos in Britain comes from explorers’ encounters with tattooed Polynesian people during the 1770s. In keeping with this, Wollstonecraft’s reference to tattooing appears in a passage about “barbarous states,” where “only the men and not the women adorn themselves”; the fact that interest in such adornments is shared among men and women  shows how English “society has advanced, at least, one step in civilization.” She concludes that the “attention to dress … is natural to mankind,” and is not sexually determined. Tattooing seems just a chance reference here, as an example of the kinds of physical adornments that might be seen in other societies.

But even the contextual reference to “barbarous states” doesn’t explain Wollstonecraft’s apparent familiarity with tattooing, which is curious since the word had entered the broader lexicon only fifteen years before she wrote A Vindication. Though tattooing practices had existed in Britain since antiquity (the Picts, for instance, were so named for their painted faces), the first English use of the term occurred in 1769, in Captain James Cook’s journal. Interestingly, his observation differs materially from Wollstonecraft’s: “Both sexes paint their bodys Tattow as it is called in their language.” The first printed instance of the term, in 1777, makes an interesting connection between tattooing and writing, describing “the punctuation which the natives call tattow.”

Omai, painted by Joshua Reynolds. Note the tattoos on his hands.
Omai, painted by Joshua Reynolds. Note the tattoos on his hands.

Through Cook’s influence, perhaps unexpectedly for modern readers, tattooing first became a topic of keen interest among the British aristocracy. Cook’s rich and well-connected botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, had Pacific Islanders tattoo him during the voyage, and the expedition returned in 1774 with Omai, a tattooed Polynesian man who had served as an interpreter. While in Britain, Omai  was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and he met literary luminaries like Frances Burney and Samuel Johnson, as well as the members of the English royal family. Omai returned to Polynesia with Cook’s next expedition in 1776, but not before his “extremely graceful,” “polite, attentive, and easy” manners had impressed Burney. In its early displays at court from Banks and Omai, tattooing had not yet acquired its lowlife associations.

But when did it? We have very little data on the prevalence of tattooing during the Romantic period, though we do know that the practice spread among sailors who had been inspired by Cook’s crew. The later nineteenth century offers a few figures, but these are almost entirely concerned with tattooing among the upper classes:

1827John Rutherford claims to have been unwillingly tattooed by the Maori, and exhibits himself at sideshows
1840s – Tattooing is practised by public schoolboys in England
1861 – Maurice Berchon, a French naval surgeon, publishes a report on the medical complications of tattooing; the military bans tattooing soon after
1862 – The Prince of Wales has a cross tattooed on his arm during a visit to the Holy Land
1870s – Tattooing becomes fashionable among the upper classes
1879 – The New York Times remarks that “in England it is regarded as a customary and proper thing to tattoo the youthful feminine leg”;  the front cover of the Police Gazette displays an upper-class woman being tattooed by another woman in her boudoir
1898Harmsworth Magazine estimates that 20% of the gentry have tattoos

Tattooing appears to have gone underground in British public practice after Omai’s departure and Cook’s last voyage, only to resurface in public schools fifty years later. There is little information on what happened in those intervening years, through from Wollstonecraft and Keats’s testimonies, tattooing was still very much in the water. We are left with only a partial answer to how Wollstonecraft  came to know about tattooing and why she refers to it in A Vindication, and no answer for why Keats and his medical-student contemporaries would have needed to know about the difficulty of tattoo removal as early as 1815. The mystery continues!

But, for those interested in Romantic-themed tattoos — ah, here there is much to offer, beginning with Jane Austen.

The next mystery: is Lionel Verney from The Last Man a relation of Varney the Vampire?

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