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Grandma's Secret: The History of the Vibrator

Pop quiz. Can you name the inventor of the telephone? How about the inventor of the light bulb? And who popularised the motor vehicle?

OK, so you think you’re up on the history of everyday objects. How about this, then: When was the vibrator invented?

It wasn’t until recently that anybody bothered to ask this question, and the reasons behind the invention have turned out to be surprisingly intriguing.

Dildos have been around since the time of Ancient Greece, when single women made use of olisbos – wooden or rubber penis substitutes that needed a fair amount of olive oil for comfortable use. The Asians have used sex toys for at least 1000 years.  The vibrator, however, did not make an appearance until after electricity became widespread in the late 19th century. Fascinatingly, its original incarnation was as a medical instrument, a camouflage that lasted for almost 30 years.

Rachel Maines, the author of The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, discovered that vibrators came into widespread medical use in the 1890s, when there was an “epidemic” of hysteria among Western women. The symptoms of this disease, based on the Greek idea of a “wandering womb”, were varied and all-encompassing, to the point that any form of female behaviour could be considered to be a form of hysteria.  Anxiety, irritability, sexual fantasies and “excessive vaginal lubrication” were prime symptoms of the disease. Maines suggests that hysteria was simply the result of female sexual frustration in an age where women were supposed to orgasm through penetration, and masturbation was discouraged.

The standard medical treatment of hysteria involved clitoral massage until relief was obtained through the “hysterical paroxysm”. This had been standard practice for over a thousand years. Naturally it didn’t cure hysteria, and patients had to receive treatment on a regular basis. Doctors found this massage to be tiresome, as it took lengthy periods of time and required too much technical knowledge.  Thus, when Joseph Mortimer Granville, a British physician, patented the electromechanical vibrator in the early 1880s, doctors saw a way to save time and energy.  Like so many other professions of the time, a machine came to the rescue.  Now a doctor could see 6 patients in an hour instead of just 1, vastly improving their profits.

It seems almost mind bogglingly bizarre that in Victorian society women were going off to the doctor to obtain the pleasure they clearly didn’t receive at home, and that society considered it to be normal.  Maines explains this in terms of the “androcentric model of sexuality” i.e. that sex consisted only of penetration to male orgasm. Since the external use of vibrators didn’t involve the vagina, it could not be considered to be sexual contact, and thus was a purely medical encounter.  Indeed, more controversy accompanied the introduction of the speculum and the tampon than did the vibrator.  Maines points out that the façade was maintained for so long because to suggest otherwise meant that men should be doing more than mere penetration, and this would really stuff up the comfortable status quo. She also suggests that many doctors didn’t recognise the paroxysm for what it really was – an orgasm – and thus obviously hadn’t ever seen one in their wives.

Some of the early models resembled heavy engineering machinery, and were ridiculously expensive. The “Chattanooga” model retailed for over $200 at the turn of the century. By 1905, however, vibrators had become smaller and cheaper, with a larger range of attachments.

As technology advanced, the vibrator soon moved out of the doctor’s surgery and into the home, where treatment could be self administered at a much cheaper rate. Popular women’s magazines of the time were filled with advertisements for mail-order vibrators, promising health and wellbeing. “The pleasures of youth will throb within you!” gushed one.  The Sears and Roebuck catalogue featured a multi-purpose appliance that included a buffer, grinder and mixer along with the vibrator attachment.  “Will be found to be very useful in many ways around the home!” it beamed. Indeed, the vibrator was part of the early vanguard of electrical appliances; it preceded the introduction of the vacuum cleaner by 9 years and the electric iron by ten – “possibly reflecting consumer priorities” says Maines.

The medical reign of the vibrator came to an end in the 1920s, when appearances in stag films removed the patina of respectability from everyone’s favourite appliance. Doctors, increasingly knowledgeable of women’s sexuality and unable to maintain the facade, stopped using the vibrator, while the ads quickly disappeared from journals and mail order catalogues. 

There are only a few historical mentions of vibrators between the 20s and the 60s. Use of a vibrator was recommended in a 1949 sex manual The Enjoyment of Love in Marriage and mentioned again in similar books from 1959 and 1960. Masters and Johnson made use of vibrators in their research into sexuality in the late 60s. At the same time, penis-shaped vibrators were sold in sex shops and via mail order, but they retained a steadfastly seedy reputation during this time.

According to Betty Dodson, feminist author and sex therapist, vibrators were also commonly used in barber shops as a treatment for baldness (“Trust men to use it on the wrong end!” she says.)

Dodson maintains she was the first feminist to publicly introduce electric vibrators to women solely for orgasmic benefits. “My boyfriend first introduced me to the Oster vibrator in 1966. He was getting his scalp massaged by a barber when he thought, ‘This would be great for clitoral stimulation’ and he bought one from a Barbershop supply store.” In 1971 Dodson began to teach masturbation workshops, focusing on how to use a vibrator.

“At the 1973 NOW Sexuality Conference in New York City, I did a workshop where I showed two electric massagers: The Prelude and the Panabrator. The first one was shaped like a gun with vibes I didn't like, nasty little attachments, but it was nearly silent- a consideration for women who were not living alone. But the Prelude heated up and many women were using potholders to keep vibrating. Although the Panabrator sounded like a truck in low gear, it was by far the best for creating orgasms. It had a twelve inch handle with a big vibrating head and a real motor that didn't heat up after several hours of bliss.”

Dodson claims she faced opposition by some of the more mainstream feminists, who didn’t like her reliance on a sex aid. “Besides disliking the mechanical aspects of electric vibrators, they certainly didn't want to become responsible for their own orgasms. They wanted to have true love and romantic orgasms with Ms. or Mr. Right, not independent orgasms with a damn machine! However, there were many housewives in the city and suburbs who were more than interested in what I had to say about female masturbation.” Dodson’s Bodysex workshops were successful for 25 years.

Betty Dodson and her friend Dell Williams were also responsible for reviving the mail-order vibrator business. Dodson’s booklet Liberating Masturbation (later renamed Sex for One) was self published in 1974 and distributed through mail order. Williams co-ordinated selling the Panabrator and the Prelude along with the booklet, and then went on to open Eve’s Garden, the first sex store for women, in 1975.

Joani Blank took up the vibrating torch and continued to encourage women to explore their sexuality through vibrators. She originally became interested in the field of sexuality in the early 70s when she volunteered as a counsellor at the San Francisco Sex Information service. In 1976, frustrated by the lack of information on the topic, she published Good Vibrations: The Complete Guide to Vibrators which to this day remains the only detailed look at a girl’s best friend. The book covers all types of vibrators – from battery operated mail-order devices to mains powered and coil operated electric ones – and has tips on how best to use them. It also features a section on men using vibrators – a breakthrough considering most men did (and still do) consider a vibrator to be a rival in bed, rather than a useful tool.

Blank also invented the Venus Butterfly vibrator – the small, flat piece of plastic that can be strapped across the lips of the vulva.

In 1977 she opened Good Vibrations in San Francisco, the first sex shop entirely devoted to the vibrator. Determined to move the sex shop away from its seedy image, Good Vibrations was described as a “clean, well lit place to buy a butt plug”.  It was at the forefront of feminist sexuality when it opened, and is still going strong today. One of the most interesting parts of the store is the Antique Vibrator Museum.

In 1973, Joani began collecting old vibrators, picking them up for a song from garage sales and second hand shops. Her collection ranges from hand-cranked wooden models from the turn of the century to the Vibrosage vibrator from the 1950s.

“I doubt the people selling them knew they were used for sex,” she said. “They thought the vibrators were what Grandma used for her arthritic hands. Or Grandpa used to rub his sore neck. But I don’t believe they were really used that way.

“Those little antique books say they are good for all sorts of things but they don’t say anything about their sexual use. I assume some people figured out it feels really good when you put it on your clitoris. I assume that women have been touching their clitorises and having men touch their clitorises for a long time. And they figured out the vibrator felt good down there too.”

Joani admits to trying out most of the vibrators when she first acquired them. She says they work just as well as their modern equivalents, “But some of them are noisier and shoot off sparks and stuff, so you have to be careful with them.”

Today the electric vibrator is still sold as a “body massager” from electrical appliance stores, without any acknowledgment of its sexual uses. At the same time, there have been several recent developments in the design of vibrators. Candida Royalle, best known for her feminist porn films, has created the Natural Contours vibrator, a curved device designed to mould itself to the shape of the vulva. The Japanese, always fabulous with technology, have given us the ubiquitous rotating pearl vibrators which have become some of the most popular sex toys on the market today. A more recent development is the Fukuoku 9000, a tiny vibrator that fits over the tip of the finger. Powered by watch batteries, it is considered to be the easiest vibrator to use during sex. Another recent addition to the market is the Eroscillator. This electrically-powered device oscillates from side to side, instead of vibrating up and down, and comes with attachments designed specifically for the clitoris.

 Unlike earlier vibrators, however, it doesn’t come with a mixer, blender, buffer and grinder. Perhaps that’s still on the drawing board.

To read more about the new vibrators on the market, go here.

"Hey, Ma! That there buzzy thang is illegal!"

The humble vibrator still remains controversial. In 1998, the US state of Alabama passed a law banning vibrators. It was deemed obscene to sell or manufacture a sexual device which was considered to be “harmful”, with 1 year hard labour or a $10,000 fine as punishment. This law was similar to those in 5 other states, including Texas and Georgia. Outraged, six women and their Civil Liberties Lawyers took their case to court, saying the law invaded their privacy. They also pointed out that Viagra, a device which could be purchased to obtain an orgasm, was on sale in that state.

A year later, a judge struck down the law, saying it denied therapy for people with sexual dysfunction, although he refused to guarantee the right to privacy when it came to sex toys. The law still stands in the other states.  



Antique Vibrator Museum:
Joani Blank:
Betty Dodson:

This article first appeared in Australian Women's Forum December 2000
© Karen Jackson All rights reserved

The Technology of Orgasm : 'Hysteria,' the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology. New Series, 24)
by Rachel P. Maines

This article is based on Rachel Maine's fascinating book, and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in women's history. It's amazing that no-one has bothered to research this before, as the history of hysteria and the vibrator are actually closely linked to the history of women's sexuality and feminism itself. Maintaining the idea of penetration as "sex" caused society to go to such ridiculous lengths! Equally fascinating is Maine's account of being sacked because of her research, including how incredulous academics forced her to prove her article on the subject was not a hoax. You'll be cheering by the end of this book, and you'll also have a healthy awareness of how women have been marginalised by medicine for over 4000 years. - Karen Jackson



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