Were nipple rings really a Victorian fashion fad?

Cristen Conger

Victorian bosom rings...possibly.
Victorian bosom rings...possibly.
Courtesy: Pinterest

Underneath their corsets and waistcoats, Victorians harbored a simmering -- if repressed -- horniness. There, I said it: Victorians were horny. How else do you think Queen Victoria and Prince Albert produced nine children?

Pornographic evidence of Victorian-era prurience abounds. In this week's podcast on BDSM, Caroline and I discuss the 19th-century popularity of "fladge porn" and the contemporary writing of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Venus in Furs-authoring namesake of sado-masochism.

Then there's the alleged popularity of female nipple piercing, a practice associated today with BDSM communities. A host of sketchy Internet histories of nipple piercing mention how Victorians were all about them for a time; they were the original nipple ring enthusiasts. Moreover, women's nipple rings are often -- and sensationally -- described as a Victorian "fashion fad," prompting jokes about those secretly randy Victorians and their fetish jewelry.

And it's true that Victorian nipple piercing pops up in a few reputable sources. Cultural anthropologist Margo DeMello writes in the Encyclopedia of Body Adornment:

"The end of the nineteenth century also saw a brief fashion trend of nipple rings known as the 'bosom ring.' After the 1890s, however, the nipple piercing disappeared, emerging only since the 1960s with the body modification and especially the gay and BDSM communities."

Victoria Sherrow's For Appearance Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Beauty and Grooming also reports:

"During the late 1800s, some women in Europe had their nipples pierced and wore gold 'bosom rings' in each breast. Some women also wore a chain connecting the two rings."

Finally, a 1999 study on body piercing in the respected British Medical Journal briefly notes "discussing of female nipple piercing in Victorian journals."

But even those three mentions left me wanting for primary source material. After some digging, I found I wasn't the only skeptic. To my delight, a discussion thread on the University of Michigan's Humanities and Social Science message board was entirely devoted to "Victorian breast-rings" with vague conclusions.

Lo and behold, a turn-of-the-century German text that roughly (Google) translates to John Bull in Upbringing: A Collection of Letters from Supporters and Opponents of Corporal Punishment and the Corset-Discipline in English Education offers epistolary evidence that nipple rings were, in fact, a thing -- especially in France. A lengthy message board post reports on the titillating (#irresistible puns) details, including:

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 jeweller 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 si├Ęcle in connection with ladies of the demi-monde.

The claim that Victorian doctors advised nipple piercing to stimulate breastfeeding, however, appears to be pure myth as no mention of it is made in any medical literature at that time. On that same message board, Charles Moser, PhD and author of a 1993 study on nipple piercing, weighed in:

...Additionally, the "effects" of nipple piercing reported in the Victorian literature is the same as reported in my study (citation below), suggesting that it was not complete fiction. We were also surprised that more people did not encounter infections or other complications. Nevertheless, I would agree that nipple piercing was not common. The jewelry needed is somewhat specialized, so we should see advertisements for that.

So while certain fashionable women did adorn their areola, the average Jane likely wasn't walking around with metal beneath her chemise. But to call it a full-on fashion trend would be a stretch, same as today.