(Music Plays) Lydia, The Tattoed Lady – An eighteenth century woman’s tattoo

The New Yorker Photo Booth blog highlighted tattoed women and a book about them Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin (1997). The photograph of Maud Wagner caught my eye, my first perception of a Gibson girl like figure, and then realizing that the decorative pattern is not lace on her clothing, but inked flesh.

I argue with the caption for the photograph of Olive Oatman, reading ” Olive Oatman, 1858. She was the first tattooed white woman in the U.S. After her family was killed by Yavapais Indians, on a trip West in the eighteen-fifties, she was adopted and raised by Mohave Indians, who gave her a traditional tribal tattoo. When she was ransomed back, at age nineteen, she became a celebrity. Photograph courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society, Tucson, 1927.”

Through my study of eighteenth century servants and their dress, I’ve discovered a working woman who tattooed herself. Sarah McGee of Evesham, NJ ran away from her master in 1777. Her dress is typical of many working women in the American colonies. She wore upon her elopement “a snuff coloured worsted long gown, a spotted calicoe petticoat, stays and a good white apron, a snuff coloured cloak, faced with snuff coloured shaloon, a black silk bonnet, with a ribbon round the crown.”

And at the end of the advertisement, her master, Barzillai Coat, hastens to add “N.B. She has a cross on her right arm, put in with gun powder, and the two first letters of her name and the date of the year.” Sarah McGee is the only runaway servant in my database of 1000 who is described with a tattoo. The mention of her tattoo indicates the practice was not unknown to women of the lesser sort.

About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.