Vibrators Through the Ages
Welcome to the museum that celebrates one of the most important technological breakthroughs of the past millennium: the vibrator.
Illustration by Penelope Gazin
Against all odds, San Francisco did not have a museum devoted to antique vibrators until last month. This absurd oversight was corrected by Carol Queen, resident sexologist at the Good Vibrations sex-shop chain and author of both scholarly journal articles regarding sexuality and straight-up (but not necessarily straight) erotica. She’s also the star of Bend over Boyfriend, an instructional video series about “pegging,” the elaborate art of females strapping fake dicks to their crotches and reaming said dildo into a willing male’s BH. As you can see, Carol does not fuck around when it comes to fucking—especially when it involves apparatuses that you stick inside yourself or someone else. So it’s no surprise she has opened a physical space that celebrates one of the most important technological breakthroughs of the past millennium: the vibrator.
VICE: How did you get the idea to open a museum dedicated to vibrators?
Carol Queen: Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank collected old vibrators and displayed them in the store from the beginning. They were a popular feature, and people began to give more vibrators to us, and we acquired some from eBay as well. Eventually, we’d been given so many that we decided to devote a space to them and make it official!
The first vibrators date back to the 1800s. What sorts of materials were people sticking up into themselves back then? Logs?
Actually, vibrators were not used then for putting up anywhere. Vibrators are really made for the clitoris, which has specialized nerve endings to feel just that sensation. While some certainly do like them vaginally and there are people of all genders who love anal vibration, the old vibrators are all intended for clitoral stimulation. In those days, they thought vibration could cure practically everything, and of course it does enhance blood flow. There were also dildos back then that were used for insertion. I have read descriptions of leather, rubber, and wooden ones that date from the 19th century and earlier, but these were not, to our knowledge, used by doctors.
Hold on a minute. Since when did doctors use vibrators on patients outside of a fetish porno?
In the mid- to late 19th century, they were used by medical doctors to treat hysteria, a condition that responded well to “hysterical paroxysms of relief”—what I call an orgasm! Even before that time, there were hydro-powered and hand-cranked vibrators. By the turn of the 20th century, as more homes got electricity, these devices became available to individuals. They turned up in a frankly sexual context in the porn movies of the 20s. This was the beginning of the end for their use by doctors and of the very notion of hysteria, which was taken out of the med books in 1952.
What’s the most impressive piece in the museum’s collection?
My most amazing find was a pneumatic vibrator that runs on compressed gas. You hooked it up to the kind of tank you see powering a pneumatic drill during street construction. Obviously, this is a device that didn’t really catch on.