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Fucking Hysterical: A Timeline of Vintage Vibrators

By Tanja M. Laden

Not far from San Francisco's favorite trans bar in the heart of the historically gay-friendly Polk district you'll find the Antique Vibrator Museum, a vivid exhibit of vibrators dating from the early 20th century through the 1970s. 

The museum opened last year inside a sex-toy store called Good Vibrations, where therapist and educator Joani Blank had been displaying a few old vibrators since she opened the shop in 1977. Gradually, customers started to donate their own, then eBay came along, and 36 years later, her small collection has evolved into the Antique Vibrator Museum—home to more than 120 vintage vibrators, along with packaging materials, manuals, print ads, and other vibrator-related ephemera. It’s the biggest collection of orgasm-inspiring devices open to the public today.

The curator of the museum, Dr. Carol Queen, who we interviewed last year, gives regular tours of the old-timey vibes, which are arranged chronologically inside a dozen glass cases. A lot of her info comes from from Rachel P. Maines's book, The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction. But while Maines's historical research forms the backbone of the Antique Vibrator Museum, Dr. Queen is the one who fleshes things out.

"It's one thing to know about vibrators as sex toys, and quite another to see how many types there were throughout the century," she says. "It's also a great example of design and industrial changes in one particular household implement."

The vibrator itself has a long and storied history rooted in female hysteria, a so-called physical illness that disappeared from medical textbooks in 1952. For centuries, though, hysteria was a legitimate and common diagnosis for women who just needed to get laid, or, at the very least, treat themselves to a few mind-blowing orgasms. But since most women in the old-timey days didn't even know they could have orgasms, they needed someone—or something—to help. Thanks in part to the Antique Vibrator Museum, here's a timeline chronicling the evolution of vibrators in history.

200 AD: The Genital Massage

Physician and philosopher Galen of Pergamon prescribed "genital massage" to treat hysteria, which comes from the Latin for "womb." He wrote that the disorder, as it was known then, was caused by a wandering womb or something. "It certainly was thought of as primarily a women's disease," says Dr. Queen. "Some commentators talked about it in nearly sexual terms — it affected virgins and widows more than married women, for instance."

1650-1660: Coming Along

By 1653, Petrus Forestus started fingering his patients with essential oils so they could achieve a "paroxysm," which British surgeon Nathaniel Highmore soon figured out was really just a fancy word for orgasm. To treat symptoms of hysteria, doctors would massage the vulva and clitoris until the woman had a "hysterical paroxysm of relief." But according to Dr. Queen, "Very few doctors said in so many words that they were instigating orgasms through these treatments."

1750: Let's Hose the Cunt

In France, the "pelvic douche device" predated the showerhead by at least 200 years. Hose-wielding medical workers thrust water toward uteruses in an effort to get them to stop wandering around. Meanwhile, in England, physicians still employed ye olde genital massage. But as Dr. Queen notes, "One treatment wouldn't cure a woman with hysteria, only make her feel better for a while. So it made for lucrative repeat business."

1869: The Steam-Powered, Coal-Fired Manipulator

After manually masturbating hundreds of hysterical women, some doctors started to get hand cramps. To save time and energy, American physician George Taylor patented the Manipulator, a motorized padded table with a hole and throbbing ball in the middle. Technology of Orgasm author Rachel Maines discusses the early mechanical instrument in detail.

1880s: Mortimer Granville's Electric Vibrator

Soon, advancements in electricity enabled British physician Joseph Mortimer Granville to patent the first electromechanical vibrator. His character is actually the inspiration behind Hysteria, a 2011 film set in Victorian London starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. You don't get to see her have an orgasm, though.

1899: The Vibratile

Billed as the secret to beautiful skin, an ad for the Vibratile first appeared in the popular 19th century periodical McClure's Magazine. The basic $5 to $10 vibrator promised relief of everything from intermittent pain to crow's feet. 

1900: The Hand-Crank VeeDee

One of the oldest vibrators at the Antique Vibrator Museum, the VeeDee, looks like a hand drill and was meant to aid hysteria-relievers who were sick of getting their fingers dirty. "Doctors who had done vulva massage by hand adopted these," says Dr. Queen, "And some medical practices continued to offer this treatment up till the 1930s or so."

1914: The Pneumatic Detwiller

With various attachments called vibratodes, the Detwiller operated via compressed air and/or gas, and had the potential to blow up one's vagina if something malfunctioned. The Ford Pinto of vibrators, it's probably the most dangerous sex toy ever and one of Dr. Queen's favorites.

1920s: Vibrators in Porn

"We will never know how many shoppers used the vibrator for purely sexual purposes, or to treat their own hysteria," says Dr. Queen. "We do know that vibrators popped up as sexual implements in very early porn movies. As a probable result, ads for vibrators began to disappear from magazines, and within a decade they were gone, as were most doctors' practices based on producing hysterical paroxysms, now that it was clearer what those were."

1930-40: The Art Deco Treatment

While the diagnosis of hysteria slowly faded away, at-home vibrator use only grew in popularity. By the 1930s vibrators became more portable, owing to the increased use of lightweight materials such as aluminum and plastic. They were also a lot more colorful, with many of their designs extending onto the decorative packaging, too. "This is the decade when vibe sellers talk of them as beauty products," says Dr. Queen. "This had always been part of vibe sales appeal, but it took a leap during the 1930s and 40s."

1940-50: Weight-Loss Vibrators

Along with a boxed Infra-Red Massager and the Coronet Electric Patter, the Antique Vibrator Museum has a smaller case of weight-loss vibrators from the 1950s. "This use of vibration may not work particularly well," says Dr. Queen. "Though vibration plate machines—an update of this midcentury design—can be found in some gyms today."

1950-60: Disambugation

With a rubber suction cup and user-friendly hand strap, vibrators like the Spot Reducer continued to promote weight loss. But in 1952, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove the term hysteria from medical texts, and by 1953, US sexologist Alfred Kinsey had already published two bestselling books on human sexual behavior. Plus, the increasing use of vibrators in porn movies like The Nun only further facilitated their use as sex toys. 

1960-70: Hippie Vibes

Along with a set of Magic Fingers motel-bed vibrators, the final display at the Antique Vibrator Museum features the Stim-u-Lax, a Swedish scalp massager that hasn't changed much since the 1930s. There's also one of Dr. Carol Queen's personal favorites and the rarest vibrator in the collection, which was constructed at a commune. "It was almost time for the vibrator to get a makeover, anyway," says Dr. Queen. "By the late 1960s (and in some contexts sooner than that), you could buy a vibrator at a sex shop."  

1970s: The Magic Wand, etc.

Dr. Queen's tour of old vibrators winds down with the Hitachi Magic Wand, which first came on the market in the 1960s and remains one of the most popular electric vibrators today. "Our collection ends here, because that's when the modern history of Good Vibrations began. The store was founded in 1977 specifically to sell vibes to women, and we didn't promise the customers a hysterical paroxysm—we said it was a good way to have an orgasm."

1990s-now: Vibrators Today

In 1998, Alabama's antiobscenity law banned the distribution of "any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs for anything of pecuniary value." And in 2007, the Supreme Court refused to hear adult-store owner Sherri Williams's case questioning the constitutionality of laws that prohibit the sexual use of vibrators in other states such as Massachusetts, Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia. "My motto has been they are going to have to pry this vibrator from my cold, dead hand," she said. Her hysterical pleas were heard, because in 2008, a US Federal Appeals court ruled that banning sex toys violated the Constitution's Fourth Amendment on the right to privacy.

It's interesting how a once-legitimate prescription for an ailment suddenly became illegal in some parts of the country, once it was obvious that the age-old "treatment" was really just a form of masturbation. That is to say, now that we all know what these devices are really for, our conservative-leaning courts got freaked out. Even more interesting is the fact that possessing a vibrator is actually still illegal in Alabama, with one exception: you're allowed to own one if you have a doctor's note. But what's the diagnosis?

Sounds like hysteria has come full circle.

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