Why Did Pirates Wear Earrings?

A famous portrait of Howard Pyle's depicts the notorious Captain Kidd, clearly wearing an earring. And movie pirates usually don them, too. Did they wear them in real life?

Evidently so. Our resident pirate expert, Toby Gibson (librarian and historian, who has made a lifelong study of pirates) writes:

"While I'm sure Hollywood was trying to make leading men such as Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr, look suave and exotic, real pirates were piercing their ears for a more practical purpose. It was believed that piercing the ears with such precious metals as silver and gold improved one's eyesight. This was the main reason pirates performed such a ritual. It must also be noted that most other seafaring men also indulged in this practice.

"While for years this was considered an old wives' tale, today the art of acupuncture lends some credence to the practice of ear piercing. The earlobe is an acupunture point for several eye ailments. It is quite possible that the practice of ear piercing may have been brought to the West from the Oriental trade routes."

History confirms that pirates increasingly worked Asian waters after the Caribbean and "New World" prospects "dried up" in the early to mid-eighteenth century. This would also explain why the graphic depictions of pirates in the earliest books we described in the previous chapter do not picture pirates sporting earrings.

We decided to speak to some acupuncturists, to determine whether practitioners, then and now, believe in a relationship between piercing th ear and improved vision. When we asked Dr. STeve Given, an acupuncturist who also teaches the art at Emperor's College in Santa Monica, California, he gave us a shock. We asked him about the ear-eye connection, and before we could broach the subject, he brought up pirates:

"There are reports of people enjoying vision improvements after having their ears pierced. In fact, when I studied acupuncture, the subject of pirates piercing their ears just for this reason was discussed."

Given doesn't dispute that pirates pierced their ears for this reason. He discussed how the ear is often used in acupuncture, as a focus point for eye problems in general, and vision problems, in particular. A point on the ear, called the "eye point" or "vision point" corresponds to the area on an earlobe where piercing might take place. But he doubts that any lasting vision improvements could be attained from piercing:

"If they did get a benefit by puncturing the master sensorial [yet another name for the "eye point] in a fortuitous manner, it certainly wouldn't be a lasting thing. Once the ear is pierced, scar tissue forms around the hole. This will block any further beneficial effects."

Given's arguements were corroborated by two other acupuncturists we consulted. Timothy Chen, of the Acupuncture Clinic of Pasadena, told IMPONDERABLES that he has found nearsightedness and conjunctivitis to be conditions helped by acupuncture on the ear, but doubted whether piercing could help general vision, on a long-term basis. Dr. Michael Apelian, of the Acupuncture Therapy Center in Santa Monica, has heard of cases of vision being harmed and helped by ear piercing:

"I've heard it go both ways. I've also heard because you're damaging that area by piercing, it can inhibit vision. I think that most of the more ancient beliefs (and Chinese literature) felt that it would stimulate vision rather than hinder it."

We asked Dr. Apelian if he treated people on the ear for vision problems:

"Sure. However, I think that other body points, especially on the face and feet, are stronger."

Maybe pirates pierced their ears and feet, too. But it would be hard to find rings underneath the bushy beards and salty footwear.

Submitted by Lauren Kuehl of Levittown, Pennsylvania. Thanks also to Amy Kelly of Cleburne, Texas, and Douglas Watkins, Jr., of Hayward, California.

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