VINTAGE VIBRATOR MUSEUM


Vintage Vibrator History

A Short History of Vibrators

It may be hard to believe, but the technologically advanced sex toys of today are merely modern iterations of objects that have been around for thousands of years. The first evidence of sex toys appears in the archeological record some 30,000 years ago with Ice Age fetish objects. Records and depictions of sex toy use exist in the artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome. The first mechanical vibrators appeared in Britain and the United States during the late 19th century, and the 20th century saw a proliferation of these devices. Of course, "sex toy" is a contemporary term that reflects these objects' current status and usage; until the middle of the last century, vibrators in particular were created and marketed as medical devices for the treatment of "hysteria" in women.

Hysteria Treatments from the Ancient World to the Victorian Era

For the ancient Greeks, hysteria was believed to be a condition in which the uterus wandered the body, wreaking havoc as it meandered. Ancient Greek accounts exist of women using olisbos—stone or wood dildos—to prevent the onset of hysteria during long periods of spousal inattention. The symptomatic definition of hysteria (overexcitement, insomnia, emotional instability, etc.) varied radically across time and social context, but Medieval and Renaissance physicians recommended the rigors of married relations (sex) or genital massage treatment for virgins, widows, nuns, and other single or under-stimulated women. Centuries later, even into the early 20th century, the idea that a woman could suffer hysterical maladies persisted. Some doctors viewed hysteria as a diagnostic "wastebasket," holding all unclassified symptoms a woman experienced. The vibrator was born out of this need for hysteria treatments and therapies.

During the Victorian Era, it was not uncommon for women to visit doctors' offices, spas, and springs retreats for hysteria therapies. These involved the stimulation of a woman's clitoris until she entered a state of "hysterical paroxysm"—what we recognize today as orgasm—thereby releasing the tension that was causing her symptoms. Since hysteria was viewed as a chronic condition, treatments were regular and ongoing. While the idea of medically-induced and -sponsored orgasm may shock the modern reader, this was not taboo at the time. In fact, because hysteria had been defined as an ailment, its treatment was normalized and seen as a clinical, rather than sexual, process. At the time, since clitoral stimulation wasn't considered a part of sex/intercourse, it was easy to deny that this doctor-performed stimulation was sexual in nature.

Some treatments utilized jets of water or other stimulation methods, but the most effective and widely used tool was the therapist's hands. By the latter half of the 19th century, hysteria treatment was a big business, complete with its own set of occupational hazards. Doctors treating hysterical women complained of repetitive motion injuries and bemoaned the amount of time necessary to bring some patients to climax. The vibrator was first developed as a tool to alleviate fatigue and quicken treatments, with the ultimate goal of increasing the ease and profitability of a physician's practice.

Large, mechanized vibrators were developed for use in doctors' offices, but they were often expensive, furniture-sized devices. The "manipulator," a steam-powered behemoth invented in 1870 by Dr. George Taylor, is perhaps the best known of the early mechanized vibrators. As technologies were refined, smaller vibrators that were hand-held and -powered became popular. A few antique vibrators were wind-up gadgets, but most were hand-cranked, much like a manual egg beater. A few decades later, the hand-held, electrical vibrator became available (around the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries). Unfortunately for doctors, the same advances that made vibrators convenient for them also made it possible to treat oneself at home without an attending physician. Thus, the hysteria therapy industry expired with the turn of the century.

A History of Vibrators in Twentieth-Century America:
From Domestic Appliances to Pornographic Accoutrements

The first three decades of the twentieth century were, perhaps, the first golden age in the history of vibrators—during this period, they retained their medical and non-sexual aura, and so enjoyed a robust popularity with household consumers. Innumerable appliance manufacturers (Andis, Hamilton Beach, General Electric, etc.) got into the game, and vibrators were commonly advertised in well-regarded magazines and catalogs. The language around vibrators focused on the benefits of massage as opposed to treatment of hysteria: headaches could be cured, muscles relaxed, languid limbs revitalized, a pep put into each step, and a rosy glow brought to the skin. Marketing copy was positive in the extreme, and evangelized vibrators as the key to health in both men and women. These devices were seen as a household health item. Nowhere in this early history of vibrators was sexual self-pleasure or masturbation explicitly mentioned, though many intrepid customers must have found their own uses and avenues of exploration. The electric vibrator was patented a few years before the toaster, iron, or vacuum cleaner (and many of the original manufacturers—Wahl, for example—continue to bring pleasure to thousands!).

But by the late 1920s, vibrators had begun to appear in stag films (silent but steamy movies that might be defined as precursors to today's porn flicks), and soon the machines became taboo. Advertising disappeared from popular publications, stores stopped displaying them (or dropped them from inventory altogether), and polite folk ceased to discuss them. Despite this shift in social mores, people still sought personal vibrators, and the marketing language of "health" and "vitality" remained unchanged on product packaging. When vibrators were relegated to the "novelty" category of consumer goods, sales outlets became more limited, and the consumer's need for discretion gave rise to the introduction of camouflaged vibrators (those masquerading as another appliance or as a multi-purpose item). Vibrators remained a hush-hush industry for the next several decades.

1960s and '70s:
Women's Liberation and the Birth of "Sex Toys"

As social change rocked the 1960s and '70s, sexual empowerment and women's liberation brought the vibrator back out from under the bed, changing the history of sex toys. Not only were women agitating for equal treatment and freedoms; they were, for the first time in a long time, empowered to explore their sexuality. The Pill, free love, and feminism all brought sex into common discussion; with it came self-pleasure and the vibrator. Writers like Nancy Friday and Erica Jong brought female sexuality and fantasy to the forefront of popular discussion; Dr. Betty Dodson, in the documentary Passion & Power, recounts the story of a hand-held barber's vibrator, brought home by her boyfriend and thoroughly enjoyed by the couple. For Dodson, this was just the beginning; she spent the next several years advocating the use of vibrators and running sexuality workshops for women. Around this same time, as the sexual revolution raged, new vibrator styles began to hit the market, and the language on some product packaging changed from a promotion of general health benefits to a promise of pleasure. Vibrators (or marital aids, as they were/are sometimes called) were now undeniably sex toys.

In 1974, Eve's Garden opened in a discreet, uptown office space on the west side of New York. This well-lit, welcoming, women-owned and -run shop sold vibrators and other sex toys in a boutique environment, providing women a welcome alternative to raunchy porn shops. The first of its kind, Eve's Garden put forth the still-radical ideas that sex was a healthy practice undeserving of the negative associations attached to it by society, and that women should be masters of their own pleasure.

Today's Golden Age of Vibrators: Sex-Positive Retail and High Design

Eve's Garden was a vanguard in a revolution that led to the founding of other sex- and women-positive adult toy stores, including Babeland (originally Toys in Babeland), which opened in 1993 on Capitol Hill in Seattle. This women-owned sex toy retailer has as its motto "sex toys for a passionate world," and aims to change the way people think about and shop for sex toys. As the history of sex toys rolls on and the notion of self-pleasure becomes more widely embraced, Babeland remains at the forefront, bringing sexual empowerment, education, and fun to countless curious customers.

In addition to being sex-positive, Babeland is recognized as an industry leader that values innovation in vibrator design, body-safe materials, rechargeable technology, wide selection, and thorough testing. Babeland.com offers vibrators that respond to music, wearable vibrators, remote control vibrators, vibrators with multiple speeds and vibration patterns, and even a few technological wonders that learn your preferences in order to improve the user experience. Back in the early days of personal vibrator technology, things were a bit simpler; now, the world of vibrators is your oyster.

Click here to explore our gallery—you'll see antique and vintage vibrators as well as some of the most innovative, popular, luxurious, and powerful vibrators available today!