Tag Archives: ephemera

Friday Ephemera: Lydia the Tattooed Lady


Upon first glance, this may appear to be simply a portrait of a respectable Victorian woman. Look a bit closer, though, and you’ll realize that what seems to be some kind of lace pattern covering the young lady’s chest and arms is actually a complex design of tattoos. The woman in question is Miss Irene Woodward, otherwise known as La Belle Irene, and she is widely considered the first documented tattooed lady of the circus sideshow tradition.

La Belle Irene showing off her ink

I’ve always been fascinated by tattooed ladies for much the same reasons as I am enthralled with flappers; that is to say, I love learning about the men and women who, in a time in history as uptight as the Victorian era, chose to alter their appearances so radically that it would put them on the fringes of society forever. In my fiction writer brain, I wonder about character motivation: What drove them to do it? What was the appeal?

Nora Hildebrandt, who worked with Le Belle Irene in New York's Bowery dime museums in 1887

During the late 1800′s, when Le Belle Irene got her start in New York, the British Empire had been expanding steadily for almost 100 years, filling the white Western minds of its countrymen with lavish images of all the exotic and fascinating lands it was subjugating. People entertained their notions of “savages” and their “uncivilized ways” with a morbid mix of horror and curiosity, and it didn’t take the dime museums long to capitalize on it.

Tattooing is a centuries-old practice in many non-Western cultures, and pretty soon men and women alike were displaying their exotic body art in sideshows across the country. The backstories of how they got their tattoos ranged from the mundane to the utterly fantastic. My favorite is Nora Hildebrandt, who claimed that she and her father were kidnapped by the Sioux Indian tribe, headed up by none other than Chief Sitting Bull himself. During more than a year of intense psychological torture conjured up by those inhuman savages, the Indians forced Nora’s father to tattoo her skin until he finally broke his own needles in an act of defiance (which he paid for with his life, of course). Nora was rescued and discovered by circus owner Adam Forepaugh who heard her tragic story with pity.

a tattooed lady advertising poster that promotes the idea of skin as a canvas for art...an idea ahead of its time

When they weren’t making up extravagant backstories for themselves, the early tattooed ladies were often very enterprising and independent women. Some of them had incredibly successful careers on the sideshow circuit, and many of them became tattoo artists themselves. As for Irene, she eventually joined P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and toured through England, France, and Russia, performing for heads of state and royalty alike.

There are a lot of photographs of tattooed ladies to be found on the internet, but not a whole lot of real information about their day to day lives, leaving my character motivation question somewhat unanswered. I suppose the draw of possible fame and fortune was enough for many of these women to tattoo themselves, but I have to wonder if, at least for some of them, there wasn’t something more to it than that. As an increasingly tattooed lady myself, I want to believe that Miss Irene genuinely loved her tattoos, that she found meaning and satisfaction in having art etched onto her skin, even at the cost of most of society’s respect. I want to find in these women a type of courage to tap into whenever I visit my friend in Alabama and get tons of stares in a restaurant or have to face the quiet judgment of my grandparents at family gatherings. Looking at these photographs inspires me to continue being myself and reminds me that, if all else fails, I can always join the circus.

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To learn more about tattooed ladies and dime show museums, check out:

Lydia and Friends

Dime Museums – The Dead Media Archive

The Smithsonian History of Tattooing

The Human Marvels

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Friday Ephemera: The Kingfish’s Favorite Cocktail

As promised, this week’s Ephemera is extra-special because it combines several elements of this blog in one tall, chilly glass. It’s one part roaring twenties intrigue, one part New Orleans cultural history, one part handcrafted artistry, and ten parts alcohol. Specifically, gin.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Ramos Gin Fizz:

holy smokes, I want one right now.

Developed by its namesake in 1888, bartender and owner Henry C. Ramos, the Ramos gin fizz has been a treasured staple on New Orleans area cocktail menus for well over a century. The drink is a frothy, creamy concoction of heavy cream, whipped egg whites, orange water, club soda, and of course a very dry gin declared by one loyal patron to be “like drinking a flower.”

The cocktail skyrocketed to fame when Ramos started serving it up at his bar, the Imperial Cabinet, on the corner of Carondelet and Gravier St. downtown. During Prohibition, the Roosevelt Hotel bought the rights to the glass-o-deliciousness from Ramos and trademarked the name.

Serving up the Ramos Gin Fizz did much to secure the loyalty of the Roosevelt’s Sazerac Bar enthusiasts, but it found a particular soft spot in one professional drinker’s heart, the Louisiana governor that only John Goodman could play, Mr. Huey P. Long himself.

Governor Long went crazy for this drink, and it went down in history as his all-time favorite cocktail, as evidenced by this famous anecdote taken from the Sazerac Bar website:

During one of his many political trips to New York, Long stayed at the New Yorker, a hotel that boldly claimed to be the home of the Ramos Gin Fizz. After taking one sip of the New Yorker’s Fizz, the Kingfish picked up the phone and called The Roosevelt New Orleans with orders “to send his best gin fizzer on to New York by plane so he could teach these New York sophisticates how and what to drink.”

The next day Sam Guarino, head bartender at The Sazerac Bar, arrived and spent the next three hours schooling his northern counterparts on the proper way to make Long’s beloved libation. From then on out, Huey could enjoy 8 oz. of New Orleans even when he was thousands of miles away.

Huey Long watching New Orleans bartender Samuel Guarino give the Yankees what for.

I had heard of the Ramos gin fizz many times, but I had the supreme pleasure of trying my first one last week–at the recently refurbished Sazerac Bar, nonetheless. Watching the bartender make the drink was like partially like watching Macbeth’s witches churn their lethal brew and partially like witnessing Frank Lloyd Wright build Fallingwater right in front of my eyes. It was a sight to behold and a delight to sip.

Although I disagree about the flower comparison. To me, it was like drinking a sunrise. Or an alcoholic orange julius.

Below is a recipe for a bonafide Ramos Gin Fizz, although bartenders still argue over whether the two drops of vanilla extract should be included. I’ve also added a cool video of a New Orleans master bartender making the drink, although it breaks my heart a little bit that it’s shot in a different hotel.

Marc and I plan to revisit the Sazerac Bar the weekend of our one-year anniversary (April 10th), and when we do I’m going to be sure to bring my camera this time and snap some photos of my new favorite beverage.

Bottoms up, ya’ll!

Nikki

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The Kingfish’s Ramos Gin Fizz

  • 1 tablespoon powdered sugar
  • 3-4 drops orange flower water
  • 1/2 lime — juice only
  • 1/2 lemon — juice only
  • 1 jigger dry gin
  • 1 white of egg
  • 1 jigger heavy cream
  • 1 squire seltzer water
  • 2 drops extract vanilla (optional)

Mix in a tall barglass in the order given; add crushed ice, not too fine as lumps are needed to whip up the froth on the egg white and cream. Use a long metal shaker and remember this is one drink that needs a long, steady shaking. Keep at it until the mixture gets body — “ropy” as some experienced barkeepers express it. When thoroughly shaken, strain into a tall thin glass for serving.

- from New Olreans DRINKS and how to mix ‘em by Stanley Clisby Arthur. HARMANSON, Publisher 333 rue Royale, Nouvelle Orleans; 1937

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