Bosoms, Body Modification, and the Beau Monde: A Look at Victorian Nipple Piercings

1600-1800’s France was an interesting and wild time, historically speaking. Everyone was partying at the palace of Versailles, a symbol of all the opulence the world could offer. King Louis was regularly drawing the ire of the church for the debauchery his palace and it’s infamous parties were known for. Fashions were getting outrageous and necklines on gowns were getting lower and lower till it was fashionable to show a whole breast at court. 1 This style was sometimes referred to as “Garments of the Grand Neckline” referencing how low the neck of these dresses would dip- sometimes to the navel. 

And as it turned out, some daring women decided that if their breasts were already on display, they may as well pierce them. So the trend of pierced nipples with an entire gown to showcase them began! Now you may be thinking to yourself- nipple piercings? In Victorian times? Preposterous! But remember the history of this particular piercing predates even the Victorians, having been found in Native American, and Eurasian cultures.

A turn of the century German Journal directly reflects on this trend, and the popular views of it across Europe and the Americas. 

“The widest diffusion of breast-rings exists in Paris. Writers often refer to the breast rings as anneaux de sein. Less women have breast-rings in England, although a jeweler reports on having earlier operated 20 women in England and during the six months since the first article about them appeared in the ‘Society’ 43 women. One correspondent cites a brochure by a New York physician who complains of young American women going to Europe and getting breast-rings in Paris. The brochure sees breast-rings as dangerous to health and encouraging ‘unhealthy sensuality’. One correspondent writes that breast-rings are often mentioned in the feature pages of La vie Parisienne and Fin de siècle in connection with ladies of the demi-monde.” -John Bull in Upbringing: A Collection of Letters from Supporters and Opponents of Corporal Punishment and the Corset-Discipline in English Education

Potential Victorian Nipple Jewelry, from B. Noury in Paris. Date Unknown

Some jewelry has been recovered that historians think may have been nipple rings, but it’s largely unconfirmed. Plates have also been found showcasing some of the daring necklines of the time, and though they are not very detailed, nipple rings seem to be implied. 

This trend continued on into Victorian times, even being mentioned in magazines:

“For a long time I could not understand why I should consent to such a painful operation without sufficient reason. I soon, however came to the conclusion that many ladies are ready to bear the passing pain for the sake of love. I found that the breasts of those who wore rings were incomparably rounder and fuller developed than those who did not. My doubts were now at an end…so I had my nipples pierced, and when the wounds were healed, I had rings inserted…with regard to the experience of wearing these rings, I can only say that they are not in the least uncomfortable or painful. On the contrary, the slight rubbing and slipping of the rings causes in me an extremely titillating feeling, and all my colleagues I have spoken to on this subject have confirmed my opinion.

– London socialite writing in Vogue, 1890”

A copy of English Mechanic from 1889 contains detailed instructions about nipple piercing of the time, done with a sewing needle and silk, and stretched by adding more silk threads till a gold ring could fit. The author states her inspiration came from a Polish girl she met, who had her nipples pierced and referred to it as not uncommon in Poland for peasant women to do. So we know this trend had spread far beyond the French court to all countries and walks of life. Our author even mentions that she knew quite many men with their nipples pierced. She wrote this as a guide for another writer who expressed interest, known only as “LH.” Somehow, this cross communication in the letters section of a magazine seems eerily similar to fans corresponding through PFIQ publications, and then later the forums of BME. Turns out, modification enthusiasts don’t change too much in 200 years… 

“ (68191) Wounds 

In reply to the query LH I beg to inform him about the the breasts as we boys performed the operation at the Lycee I mentioned. The operation is so that it is not required to make any sketch only requisites are some fine strong sewing silk, long thin needle with a long eye, a small darning needle is just the thing, and a pair gold ear wires of the largest size. The needle should perforate the centre of the breast from side to side in a horizontal direction and should close to the skin of the body so that the ring inserted may lie flat on the body below the breast. The mode in which we used to proceed is this- Standing in front of a mirror make a little dot with ink on each side of the breast centrally and its base to show the places where the needle should pass in and out. Take a piece of the silk about 8in or 10in long and doubling it in the middle tie the two free ends together and pass the loop for about an inch through the eye of the needle, then lay hold with the first finger and thumb the left hand of the skin which is underneath breast so as to hold it steady, and protruding front and having a thimble on the second finger of the right hand take the needle and entering point at the dot on one side, pass it through breast and out at the other dot. If the needle not come out in the proper place it may be partially withdrawn and its direction corrected. The skin is very tough it requires a little force push it through. When the needle is placed then draw it through the breast with it the loop end of the thread which will be on one side, and the tied loose ends on other. Not more than an inch of the loop be drawn through as it has presently to retracted. Perforate the other breast in the same manner. The needle is no more required after this. Now take two pieces of the silk each as as the first one and passing them through the loop of the first thread, double them in the middle, tie each pair of loose ends in a knot. Now, holding the breast steady with one hand draw the thread back carrying with it the two other for about an inch; the first thread is now removed being not any more wanted. There are now four threads passing through each breast two loops being on one side of it and two pairs of loose ends on the other side. The silk thread should be as strong as possible although rather fine as requires some force to pull it through the skin. The operation may be further proceeded with at present or be left till next day as preferred. To proceed: Place in each loop two threads in some manner as before and draw each pair successively through the breasts so as to have eight threads passing through each of them. Leave it now till next day : by proceeding in this manner to enlarge the holes very little pain is caused. The next day, or the day after is better, the gold rings may be inserted. To do this have the rings ready opened, then cut off the threads close to one Breast and pull the whole of them out of the hole, into which at once put point of the ring and pass it through before hole can begin to close. When the rings are inserted all trouble is over. In a very short time one could scarcely know that the rings were worn except anything should touch them rudely. Do not attempt to move them until healed, anoint them three or four times a day slightly olive oil which will prevent them sticking. They should not be removed from the breasts for least several months as until the holes thoroughly cicatrised, there is a tendency grow up again. Although this may seem long and complicated it is really simple in practice and gives not much pain, only requires a little care and some resolution. If “ LR “ wishes to try the experiment of piercing his breasts I am sure he will be quite satisfied with this method. I hope he will send word to English Mechanic to say how he succeeded. Of course the operation could be done with an ear piercer; but it would be then much more painful, as the hole would have to be made full size at once, and it would require the aid of a jeweller to preform it. Although I have known many boys had their breasts pierced; yet until lately I met with a lady who had submitted to this. But when I was in London last Christmas holidays I was introduced to a young Polish lady, an artist. One occasion as she was sitting down myself standing by her side I noticed shining inside her bosom, her dress being low in front. On getting another look I saw it was a ring in her breast. On a future occasion I told her what saw and she allowed me to see the rings in site. They were of gold nearly as large as a crown and quite thick. She told me that it was usual for the peasant girls in the part of Poland from whence she came to wear them usually made of silver. She however and some of her girl friends who had been persuaded to do the operation wore gold ones. These large rings are commonly worn in the ears also, but they are mostly smooth and not facetted like the rings generally worn in this country. The operation was performed for this young lady by a jeweller with large ear piercer. She said the pain produced by the piercing was very great she nearly fainted; and hardly had courage to have the second pierced. But as there was a ring in one breast it was useless to hesitate so after a short rest she submitted to have the other one pierced; after a few hours the pain had entirely ceased. When I saw her had worn the rings for some years without any inconvenience. During the five or six years that wore rings in my breasts I never found them trouble; indeed, I was very seldom conscious I was wearing them. As I no longer reside in Birmingham, I beg to subscribe myself. 

-Jules Orme “

What a process! Hopefully no one reading this decides that olive oil is the next best thing for piercing aftercare. Interestingly enough, the process has not changed too much in the past few hundred years. We still mark at the base of the nipple, not through the tip or the areola, and these days we have the technology and tools to insert metal jewelry right away, rather than needing to wait. Even in the 1800’s they are espousing the comfort and ease of being pierced with a needle rather than a gun or mechanical tool. And, despite the olive oil, Victorians managed to figure out the most important tenant of healing a body piercing- don’t touch or play with your jewelry! Be it 1889, 1989, or 2019, those who love piercing seem to always find a way to other like minded folks.

 

Lynn has been a part of the modification industry since 2009, and piercing professionally since 2012. She has run a blog publishing articles about piercing and modification for the past 5 years. She presently pierces full time at Icon Tattoo and Body Piercing in Nashville, is a cat mom, and annoys Shawn as a part time job.

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