Mole Effects: A Conversation with a Tattoo Man: 1900


TALK WITH the “Tattoo” Man.

Mole Effects Quite the Thing For Society Women.

Spanish War Started the Fad Again After It Had Been on the Shelf For a Long Time.

Visitors at the bathing resorts of the seashore this year say that there is to be seen an unusual number of tattooed men and women. Down at Cape May a professional tattooer is making a fine living by his alleged art.

“I have had a number of young society men and women come to me during the last year,” said he of the needle and pigment. “It may surprise you, but I think I can explain it.

“Our war with Spain brought society men for the first time into contact with the fighting men of the nation—the soldiers and sailors. Now these warriors are almost invariably tattooed. You seldom see a sailor who does not bear the marks of the needle, and the proportion is almost as large among soldiers.

“My explanation of the new fad is that some of the young swells, probably merely for the oddity of the thing, had themselves tattooed while they were in the army. Almost any soldier or sailor could do the job in a rough way.

“When the boys came home from the camps their friends saw the marks, were pleased with the unconventionality of it and had themselves similarly decorated. After that it was only a natural step for the young ladies to imitate their brothers.

“Not very long ago I received a visit from two actresses who were playing in one of your down-town theaters. They wanted to know if I could tattoo a mole natural enough to be taken for the real thing.

“I experimented with my pigments and soon found that the Chinese brown in the proper solution of glycerin and witch-hazel would do the thing perfectly. See, here is the result.


He pulled up his sleeve and showed a brown spot that was indistinguishable from a mole.

“When the young ladies returned I showed them my work. They were so much pleased with it that each one had two spots put on her face. The effect was far more fascinating than an artificial patch.

“The mole, I think, will be the favorite among the society women. I have had several, however, who have had small, brilliant colored butterflies on their arms above the elbow. One of them told me that when she wore evening dress she simply tied a broad ribbon around her arm to hide the design.

“Another popular pattern is the small fly or insect. These are put on the arm as a rule, but I have put them on the shoulder. Several women have chosen the small Japanese serpent in combination with a brilliant butterfly.

“Hurt? Oh, no. Sometimes the women are a trifle nervous at first, but they soon get over that. After a little smarting for an hour or so after the job is done there is no pain of any kind.

“You see, I have the very latest instruments. This electric needle is used only for the black lines. These are always put on first.

I dip the point into the Chinese India ink, start the current and the needle goes spinning around like the buzz-saws you see the dentists use. I can draw with the black as easily as you would write slowly on paper. As soon as you get over your first nervousness you have no more trouble and the rest is easy.

“After the outline is finished I bathe it in a disinfectant of olive oil and carbolic acid, and, after a few minutes rest, begin with the Chinese vermillion.

“The follow the other colors in whatever order I choose. I use several different colors—a greater number, I think, than any other man in this country can use. The Jap who taught me the art used to get fine effects with nine colors, but he died without telling me what the other two were.

“So far as I know I am the only man in this country making a regular living at this work, though there are any number of people who will do a bungling job for you for whatever you choose to give him. My prices, however, are as fixed as though I were selling groceries.”

He took out a photograph of a man who had his entire chest covered with a brilliant colored picture of the battle of Manila. Anchors, flags, clasped hands and all appropriate devices surrounded it and underneath was the inscription, “Dewey Did It.” That piece of work cost that chap $35.” Said the needle wielder. “My finest and most brilliant colored Japanese dragons cost from $10 up to $25, and a brilliant butterfly will cost from $3 to $6.

“The indigo and vermillion are the cheapest colors. Blue, yellow, green, brown and purple are Japanese pigments and are more expensive.

“I am glad to see that society people are taking this up. I should not advise anyone to have a conspicuous design worked out, but a small, neat piece of work is very effective. I expect to have quite a rush on the mole effects.”

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 11 August 1900: p. 11 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The tattooer mentions the superiority of a tattoo to an “artificial patch.”  He is referring to a revival of beauty patches at the turn of the 20th century, which continued through the early 1920s, as seen in these three squibs: 

 The “beauty patch” is coming into fashion again, so they tell us. As we understand it, the “beauty patch” is a piece of black sticking plaster put where the man will have an excuse for another kiss.” The Day Book [Chicago, IL] 18 March 1912: p. 33

Another aspect of the same mode is the revival of the beauty patch, which American women are now using in the form of stars, crescents, diamonds, hearts, spades, clubs and other fantastic forms. House Beautiful, Volume 36, 1914

 Heart-shaped beauty patches bearing picture of lover is latest fad among girls unfortunate enough to have sweethearts in war. The Day Book [Chicago, IL] 16 August 1915: p. 7 

Patches, “beauty spots,” or “beauty marks,” were said to have originated in the 18th century as a way to cover smallpox scars or blemishes, venereal in origin or otherwise. They were made of black cloth, cut into fancy shapes such as stars and moons, sometimes stiffened with varnish, and stuck on with adhesive. The term “court plaster” is said to arise from these adornments since they were worn by ladies at court.

Their placement was a matter for careful consideration: the one in the corner of the eye was called “the passionate;” if in the middle of the cheek, it was dubbed “the gallant.” A spot upon the nose was called “the impudent;” while that placed to disguise a pimple was known as “the recéleuse.” One placed next the mouth mean “kiss me.” The Spanish, who also refined the language of the fan, had an entire vocabulary of symbolic spots. For example, a beauty spot on the left temple meant that the lady’s affections were occupied. One on the right suggested that she was considering a change of lover. The absence of temple beauty spots meant that the citadel could be stormed.

An importer of these interesting objects testified at a 1919 customs tribunal that “the articles are used on the face to beautify the skin; that the French word ‘mouche’ in English is ‘fly,’ and that when these articles are applied to the face they are intended to represent a fly.” The objects in the customs case were made of cotton velvet.  The tattoo man’s trade in flies suggests the society lady’s imperfect grasp of the French language or perhaps a literal turn of mind: “I want a mouche on my shoulder.”

Mrs Daffodil, who has little use for refinements of fashion that feature disease-spreading insects, fears that she would be tempted to swat any mouche–in velvet or in inkwhich came her way.   

For some illustrations of 18th-century patches and patch-boxes and a discussion of the “language of patches,” see here. And for a strange story of a courtesan tattooed with her erotic history, see here.

 Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


6 thoughts on “Mole Effects: A Conversation with a Tattoo Man: 1900

  1. Moonlight Miyu

    This is a wonderful post! I especially like the attention paid to the fact that plenty of women were getting tattoos as well! So much history is so often overlooked. I’m glad to know that my tattoos may be considered (almost) in-period for my Victorian costuming! Now I’m considering getting a small bright butterfly (above my elbow?!?) as a nod to all the fashionable tattooed ladies of the Victorian/Edwardian Eras 🙂


    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      Thank you so very much for your kind words and for reblogging this post. Yes, vintage tattoos are quite fascinating! Many articles focus on women and their interesting or eccentric choices of tattoos. I will be posting more in the future so stay tuned!


  2. Pingback: A Boston Girl Gets a Tattoo: 1893 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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