Monday, July 1, 2013

Tattoos in the Old West

Many things fascinate me, but nothing more than discovering tidbits of information that can be woven subtly into a story. My love of romance has evolved over the years and when I first began reading, I had a voracious appetite.  In the 1980s, the market was full of romances that took the reader all over the world, allowing them to investigate a variety of time periods in the process. Historical Western romances became my favorite genre and I still consider it my “comfort” read.
As I continue to read in this particular genre, I’m thrilled when I find authors willing to dig deeper. I think as we continue to write genres that have been explored for several years, it becomes harder and harder to not just rework what has already been written. They say there are only 20 basic plots and if that’s the case then I think it’s important to spice up the plot with setting and characters that are unique and compelling. 
To that end, it excites me to find these oddities in our history.
Meet NORAHILDEBRANDT – The First Tattooed Lady. Well, I doubt she was the very first tattooed lady as there have been many cultures here and abroad who have decorated their bodies with ink and pattern, but Nora was the first publicized American lady to show off her artistically adorned skin. That this occurred in 1882 when things of this nature were probably considered taboo for a woman, is fairly amazing.  In fact, the tattoo displayed on the character, Eva, from Hell on Wheels is very similar to one seen on Olive Oatman, a Mojave captive in the 1850s. Her story is quite intriguing as well.
File:Olive Oatman, 1857.png
from Wikipedia
When Olive’s family made a journey to across Arizona, a group of Native Americans (assumed to be Yavapais Indians) attacked and murdered her parents, left her brother for dead and kidnapped her and her sister. She was 14 at the time. Later, a tribe of Mohave Indians traded horses and blankets for the two girls and adopted them into their tribe. They tattooed her because they believed it would ensure a good afterlife. You can read about her remarkable story here.
Getting back to Nora's story, my curiosity was peeked about comment made on the use of tattoos during the civil war. Soldiers from both sides of the war were getting tattoos, probably as a rite of passage or maybe even to commemorate an event or particular battle. Back then, they wouldn’t have had access to the wide variety of colors we have now. Nor would conditions for getting these images permanently adhered to the skin be all that sanitary. The procedure was painful as well.
Of course, during the civil war, a soldier could also be tattooed for desertion, to mark him as punishment. We all love tortured heroes and already my creative mind is trying to figure out a way to use this sweet morsel.
Nora’s father, Martin Hildebrandt was a well traveled man from Germany who started his career as a tattooist in 1846. Soldier welcomed him into their camps where he provided images of military insignias or names of sweethearts. He established the first American tattoo studio in 1870 in New York City, his daughter being among one of his first customers. 



Caroline Clemmons said...

Ciara, what an amazing story! I'd never heard of Olive Oatman or Nora. Imagine a father tattooing his daughter.

Ciara Gold said...

I had those same thoughts, Caroline. I think I was more fascinated by the time frame. We tend to think of tattoos as mainly a popular pastime for Americans. Least, I did, anyway.