A Boston Girl Gets a Tattoo: 1893

Captain McKay, tattoo artist, 1926

Captain McKay, tattoo artist, 1926


They Have All Sorts of Artistic Designs Made


Placed Upon Their Arms and Their –er—Limbs.

A Boston Man Makes a Specialty of the Business, Which might Make Trouble in Households if Known—A Few of the Designs Described.

From Life Boston Every Saturday.

“Can you tell me,” asked the pretty little brunette with the voluptuous red cheeks, of the big policeman, “can you tell me where Mr.—er—I mean Captain mcKay’s studio is? The color in her cheeks went an inch higher and assailed her faultless temples.

“Never heard of him. Who is he, anyhow?” The big policeman bent his head for further information. The pretty brunette looked very much confused.

“Well, my brother said he was right along here on Tremont row. You see, I heard him tell Will Adams what lovely tattooing he did, and without the sign of pain, too. He said lots of girls went there just to see his work. Well, I’m crazy about tattooing, you know. Oh, not all; oh, my, no, not upon myself! I just like to see it, you know. I think it is lovely. So I thought I would just look at some of the designs. Four doors down? Oh, thank you,” and the brunette told off four doors and bustled into the last one without a turn of her head.

Only Captain McKay and the pretty brunette know what happened within during the next half hour. Ture, the janitor says he heard a very indistinct little squeal several times through the keyhole. That was all he knew of the matter. But when the brunette, with an expression of guilt upon her countenance, hurried out into the street, Captain McKay told the little tale, on the understanding that names should not be used.

“No, it has not quite got to be a fad yet. But it will be soon. I have pretty girls with the daintiest of arms and legs come in here every day for me to operate upon. Yes, most of them decorate their arms. Take this young lady, for instance. She is a student at the conservatory of music. Came from somewhere in Indiana, I believe. She was crazy to have the American flag upon her leg. I know she was, but she had scarcely the courage.

“I put this little scroll upon her arm, away around here on the side of the muscle. No, it didn’t hurt her in the slightest. She uttered just a little squeal—more of surprise that the needle did not hurt more than it did, than anything. Now the ice is broken she will be back in a week, and perhaps then her courage will be better. She will have that flag put on there or I’m mistaken.”

The old system of jabbing with a needle by hand is out of vogue. Captain McKay uses electricity in his work. The instrument employed is an Edison electric pen with a larger eccentric so as to give the needle the play it requires. The play of the needle is about one thirty-second of an inch. Ordinary cell batteries are attached to it. The same power, however, cannot be employed in tattooing all persons. It is regulated by the condition of the skin of the patron. Two cells are sufficient for a person with the softest skin. Harder-skinned people take all the way to six cells, the full force of the battery.

The outlining is done with a single needle. The shading requires seven needles which are placed in the machine side by side. But two kinds of ink are used, black India ink and Chinese vermillion. These are the only colors that can be used with perfect safety because they are not poisonous or injurious. Vaseline and witch hazel are used to relive the soreness when the design is completed.

“Oh, yes,” said the captain, “they call for all sorts of designs. There’s the crucifix; I have perhaps more calls for it than for any other. They want it put in the queerest places, too. Why, I had a man in here one day who wanted me to put it on his spinal column so that the crowned head of the Savior would appear just at his collar button.

1877 tattoo

1877 tattoo

“I have tattooed bracelets on the wrists of pretty girls, and garters on their legs. A young woman who is well known to the theatre-goers of Boston has a serpent reaching from her ankle to a point well above her knee, which I did for her. The work took several days. It was a delicate job and required great care. When I finished she gave me $25 and you never saw a more pleased girl in your life.

“The wife of a well-known steamboat captain has the design of a sailor’s farewell on the fleshy part of her arm. She came and told me her husband had a similar one and she had determined to have one like it. It would never do to tell him about it, though. I happened to know that the captain detested the design which he bore within a year after I tattooed it. I dare say if he ever discovered the one his wife had they had squally weather in that household.

The Sailor's Farewell, 1877

The Sailor’s Farewell, 1877

“I have had at least twenty-five Harvard students here within six months. They mostly have such designs as the American coat-of-arms or something patriotic. You see that ‘Rock of Ages’? I pricked that design upon the left arm of an out-of-town clergyman within a week. He paid me $2 for it and was highly pleased.”

Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 3 July 1893: p. 7

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: What lends this little vignette its piquancy is the reputation that Boston girls had for being pince-nezed and puritanical blue-stockings. Even innocents from the wilds of Indiana, once exposed to Bostonian culture, developed formidable vocabularies and notions well above their station. The average reader would have been titillated, indeed, at the thought of young ladies exposing their nether limbs to the man with the needles. Captain McKay was something of a local fixture in Boston. He was interviewed in a nostalgic article in the Boston Herald in 1926 where he smiled and remarked:

“Yes, quite a number of women come in from time to time. They don’t want so much done, as a general rule. Usually some little thing or other, as a sort of joke.”

He indicated that the inner surface of the upper arm or below low-water mark on the back were the favoured localities for such decorative work on the part of his feminine customers.

Some 1926 tattoo designs.

Some 1926 tattoo designs.

For other stories of ladies and their tattoos, see The Girl With the Tell-all Tattoo and Mole Effects.

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.

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