From Hose to Handbag: The History of Vibrators

Thanks to the frank discussion of four girls from New York City (you’ll understand later…), vibrators have been catapulted into the social eye. While their initial exposure wasn’t entirely positive, it’s become more and more acceptable for women and even men to own them in recent years. Unfortunately for the women of the past though, the sexual uses of vibrators weren’t commonly known, and while some manufacturers included coded instructions on the real uses, many women were only allowed this sexual pleasure to treat psychological conditions. One of the world’s favourite sex toys has a chequered past, so let’s head back to the beginning, and explore the history of the vibrator.

Hysteria: The Female Affliction

Women of the past faced many challenges. From reduced rights to arranged marriages, they had very little say in many of the aspects of their lives. This was even true for sexual pleasure to an extent. Hysteria was viewed as a disease which primarily affected women, particularly virgins and widows. The effects included anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, and erotic fantasies.

While we now know the benefits of a healthy and regular sex life, the physicians of the past didn’t share that knowledge. In simple terms, hysteria boiled down to one point: Sexual frustration. The treatment fitted the condition, with the earliest references going back as far as 200AD to a genital massage.

Genital massages were prescribed to treat hysteria, which was often attributed to a wandering womb. The massage was basically a fancy term for fingering, and would bring the woman to orgasm which relieved the hysteria. Massage continued for over a thousand years with little development. Some doctors began using oils during the massages, and words like paroxysm were used to describe the release at the end of the massage, but essentially, doctors were masturbating women to relieve sexual tension.

The only development in the field before the first true vibrators were invented was the “pelvic douche device”. This was essentially a firehose, which blasted the woman’s genitals until she orgasmed. It’s difficult to tell how powerful the water stream would have been from the pictures, but I can’t imagine the process of sitting naked in front of an olde timey fireman being too enjoyable.

Whether you were hosed down or fingered by your doctor, there still wasn’t a cure for hysteria (unsurprisingly). Doctor’s made a small fortune from repeat treatments and in some ways, performed an almost legitimate prostitution business.

First Contact: Woman and Machine

We’re into the 1800s. The world’s population is growing rapidly, and with it, ever more women are experiencing the hysteria of not having a man to please her. Doctors must have been getting pretty fed up of massaging all these genitals by this point, so some began to look for ways to make the process easier. After all, we can’t have all these wombs wandering around.

The first invention, and essentially the first vibrator, is nothing like the modern variants. It’s probably unlike anything you’ll even be imagining at this point. It was a table!

Steam-powered by coal-fires (terrifying I know), the Manipulator was essentially a table with a motor attached to the underside. The table had a hole with a ball in it. The motor made the ball throb, massaging the genitals in place of a hand. The Manipulator was patented by George Taylor in 1869, and finally gave the doctors the relief they’d been looking for. I doubt it gave the women the same relief though.

Only a decade later, we begin to move into the golden age of innovation. New products were being invented and designed at a staggering rate thanks to the use of electricity, and Joseph Granville (an English physician) utilised this to produce the world’s first electric vibrator. This development would even be the basis of a 2011 film!

After the floodgates had been opened, many different vibrators were developed. These still looked nothing like the vibrators you know today and weren’t even marketed as traditional sex toys. Early 1900s vibrators were said to be cures to all kinds of ailments, from crow’s feet to aches and pains.

By around 1930, the idea of women suffering from hysteria had begun to fade and vibrators were beginning to be marketed as beauty products. A few decades later they had shifted to being weight loss products. Finally, in 1952, the American Psychiatric Association removed the term hysteria from medical textbooks.

Throughout this period vibrators were heavily advertised. The New York Times and Scientific American both featured advertisements for vibrators. Catalogues freely featured them. Even the sides of cars were plastered in advertisements. While these advertisements did the world of good to promote the vibrator, they were still marketed mainly as a health device, curing many diseases, deafness, malaria, fatigue, literally anything you could think of. Many manufacturers would include covert instructions for consumers to try the real uses, but nobody was explicitly saying what the vibrator was for.

For Sexual Pleasure: The Golden Age of Vibrators

With porn movies starting to feature vibrators and the free loving vibes of the 60s in full effect, vibrators began their journey into the mainstream. It was around this time that the first vibrator you’d recognise was designed: the Hitachi Magic Wand. Although this was quite clearly one of the earliest modern vibrators, even Hitachi themselves refused to admit this until 2013.

For the next 30 years women all over the world would spearhead the missions to spread the word on women’s sexuality. Vibrators began to appear in sex shops around the world, and the increased visibility and acceptance of their use forced manufacturers to produce higher quality, and safer products.

It wasn’t until the turn of the century though, that things truly became what we know today. Thanks to television, and its widespread influence, shows like Sex and the City (the four girls from New York I mentioned) and Oprah began to open the dialogue on sex toys. Even the New York Times began to discuss them, and after centuries of suppressing the sexual side of human nature, we began to accept that it was a natural part of our lives.

Now we have a massive choice of vibrators available to us, able to fulfil every sexual need or desire we have. Even men are getting in on the action, with vibrators designed specifically to stimulate the anus and prostate. Unfortunately, though, now men experience something of the stigma that plagued women for centuries, with anal play being viewed by some as unnatural or wrong. We can only hope that over time, attitudes continue to shift, just as they did for women. Hopefully soon men too will be able to enjoy the same pleasure women do from their vibrators, with the same freedom and lack of judgement from their peers.

The present-day vibrator is a magical device, letting people the world over experience heights of sexual pleasure they otherwise might not. It took a long time to get where we are, but we should be grateful. Those of us with vibrators or thinking about picking one up don’t have to deal with hysteria, or coded instructions, and instead get to focus entirely on the good part: the pleasure the device can provide.