The Surprising History of Piercings
by JR Thorpe
An outdoor portrait of a young hispanic woman standing on a downtown sidewalk.
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Whether you're a piercing virgin or have 400 different hoops and barbells hanging off your body, today is a prime time to get into the history of sticking pieces of metal through our skin: it's National Piercing Day. Trends in piercing are often rapid-shifting; today's septum rings have replaced the Marilyn piercings (above the upper lip) of several years ago, and will probably be superseded by pierced nails or something else very soon — but piercing as a concept has been with us for a very, very long time.

In fact, piercing is one of the most ancient body modifications known to science; Otzi, the 5,300-year-old man found preserved in the Alps, not only had 61 tattoos but also pierced ears for earrings. There are records of piercings of everything from ears to noses to nipples in extremely ancient civilizations; it's a fair bet that before humans could write, we were piercing ourselves to communicate class, document experience, or participate in societal rituals that modern people can barely imagine.

Piercings also carry a great deal of cultural meaning in many civilizations (which is why they are such a prominent topic in conversations about cultural appropriation); for instance, the tradition of piercing the left nostril in India to help with menstrual pain in women dates back centuries, while various African cultures still utilize traditional piercing practices. In short, anything you do to your body with a piercing needle has an incredibly long and complex history — and it's important to remember that. The history of piercing goes far beyond belly jewelry and the occasional lip ring.

Warning: NSFW content ahead.

For Ancient Mesoamericans, Piercings Showed Status In Society & On The Battlefield

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations often had extensive rules regarding who could get pierced where. The Olmec, who resided in Mexico, tended to give men giant plugs in their cheeks, which were to be expanded gradually as they got older (though we only have mask evidence for what this actually looked like). The Aztecs, however, had quite a complex code about who could pierce what and why.

Piercings, for Aztec men at least, indicated hierarchy: the placement of the piercing and the material that hung from it showed where you stood in the world. If you were the king or high nobility, you were permitted to have lip, ear and nose-plugs made of gold and precious stones. Other men were given the opportunity to have plugs of their own, but made of less precious materials like bone; the best bet for getting bigger ones was to show massive military success. For each prisoner of war captured or big battle victory achieved, a man's lip ring would be enlarged a size.

Genital Piercings Were Used By Ancient Romans As A Chastity Device

Ancient Romans regarded earrings as pretty normal ornaments, at least for women of means; but there was a particular kind of piercing common among athletes and young male singers or actors of the era that would likely make modern audiences grab their genitalia and groan. These young men would have their foreskins pulled forward, pierced on either side, and then bound together, in something called preputial infibulation.

The idea, according to historians, was to help their health and perhaps preserve the singing voices of young trebles (whose voices would, of course, break as they entered puberty) by preventing them from having sex.

But it was also about modesty — athletes and other public performers were expected to avoid showing their full penis in public at all costs, whether through a leather sheath or via the means of the piercing.

That wasn't the last we'd hear of foreskin modification in the name of sexual "purity," either. From the mid-1700s onward, there was growing panic throughout the Western world about the physical and moral problems supposedly caused by masturbation, among both men and women. The solutions proposed up until the end of the 19th century were widely varied (cornflakes were invented as an anti-masturbation method by the Kellogg family), but the idea of sewing the foreskin shut or fixing it over the head of the penis enjoyed a vogue. Yeesh.

Earrings Were Only For Slaves, Sex Workers & Outsiders In Medieval Italy

By the time the medieval period had rolled around, Italian culture in particular was suspicious of earrings and wanted to use them as a denotation of class. But they were not indicators of the upper crust, as they had been in ancient Rome; rather, they were used to connote that you were a member of an "other" group.

Mary Magdalene was depicted in paintings as removing her earrings to "return" to the Christian world, and the group of people expected to wear earrings were those who were frowned upon by society in general: slaves of both genders were supposed to have one earring, as were Jewish people and sex workers.

You may know about this history from an incident in 2011, when Vogue Italia published an English translation of an article in which big hoop earrings were referred to as "slave" earrings, claiming that the earrings were inspired by the women brought to the US from Africa in the slave trade. The backlash was swift (and very much called for).

Sailors Wore Earrings (But No One Is Quite Sure Why)

The phenomenon of sailors piercing at least one ear has been around for centuries in Europe, likely from the beginnings of the medieval period or earlier. It was certainly a practice taken up by the very highest ranks of naval society; Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, the great Elizabethan navigators, both had earrings and wore them proudly in portraits. Why they did this, however, is a bit unclear.

One belief endorsed by some sailors was that a pierced ear could improve eyesight on the sea. There were, however, other ideas flying about, many of which continued to surface all the way to the 19th and 20th centuries; sailors could use piercings, like tattoos, to indicate their experience on the sea or how many times they'd crossed the equator. It was also thought that the practice developed because a drowned sailor's funeral could be paid for with his earrings.

Male Earrings Were Used To Impress Future Wives In The 17th Century

The 1600s were a golden time to be a man who was interested in jewelry; it was expected, and fashionable, for young European noblemen advertising themselves on the marriage market to wear opulent earrings; "diamond studs or large drop earrings with a gemstone," one jewelry historian notes, were seen as ways to signal family wealth to potential matches. Portraits of male monarchs at the time, like Charles I, always prominently feature a beautiful earring, often a drop of pearl.

However, the male earring would go out of vogue for centuries afterwards, and only reappear in the 20th century, sometimes as an indication of sexuality among gay men. The New York Times reported in the 1980s and early '90s that right-ear piercings were meant to be a way for gay men to signal their sexuality — though it remains up for debate how widespread this signaling was.

Did 19th Century Women Love To Get Their Nipples Pierced?

Here's an historical puzzler: did women in the 19th century really go in for nipple piercings? The answer appears to be, well, yes. While some historians have slightly overstated the case (it wasn't a general fashion trend that everybody and their sister went for), there seems to have been an enthusiastic embrace of the idea of nipple piercings among the demi-monde in Parisian society in the 1890s — they were apparently referred to as anneaux de sein. (The show Outlander features nipple piercings on a mistress of the French king at Versailles.) There is a legend that Victorian-era doctors actually recommended this to women as a way of easing pain during breastfeeding, but nobody has actually found any evidence of this (though it sure would be fun if it was true!).

The First Famous Pierced Nose In The U.S. Belonged To A Very Eccentric Singer

Nose and septum rings have had an extraordinarily long life; they existed in both ancient African and Mesoamerican civilizations, were mentioned in the Bible, and remain part of the dowry and divorce settlements of the Bedouin nomadic people. They came to India in the 1500s, and spread to America in the '60s as hippies returned from their journeys to Indian ashrams. But nose rings actually turned up in American society a lot earlier — and all because of a French songstress with a pet pig.

The singer Polaire — who at one point had one of the world's smallest waists (at 14-16 inches in a corset), marketed herself as "the ugliest woman in the world", and was beloved of French painters like Toulouse-Lautrec — brought herself, her pet pig named Mimi and her nose piercing to America in 1910 to do a tour.

Polaire's nose piercing was seen as another mark of flamboyance, but people did take notice. However, it's likely none of them guessed that a century later, people would be getting the same piercing not to telegraph their extreme eccentricity, but to look cooler on Instagram (they also probably wouldn't have guessed about the existence of Instagram. Or the internet. It's been an eventful century!)