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17August2019

Intimacy4us

Good vibrations: early variations of the vibrator!

Have you ever wondered where the vibrator came from? This buzzing appliance was first boldly advertised by housewives with golden locks!

It is believed that the history of the vibrator dates back thousands of years and that our very own Cleopatra also had a bit of fun as one of the first women to own a vibrator in the form of a calabash full of buzzing bees! The vibrator has since come a long way...

“The patient is hysterical,” doctors would conclude during the 19th century if you were a little...eh... sexually frustrated. Roman and Greek philosophers and doctors wrote about this ‘hysteria’ in women as early as the fourth century. It was believed that hysteria was a sickness of the womb which caused irritability and discomfort. Other symptoms included anxiety, sleeplessness, erotic fantasies and excretions from the vagina. The treatment? Massage there where it matters!

Doctors believed that more than 70% of women suffered from hysteria. Feminine sexuality was misunderstood, and sometimes simply ignored. During the 13th century, doctors recommended that women use dildos as a cure. In the 16th century, they encouraged women who were hysterical to awaken their husband’s lust. Unfortunately, this didn’t help very much because modern sexual research shows that most women are only able to achieve an orgasm through direct or oral stimulation of the clitoris, and not through straightforward sex. For hysteria which couldn't be solved by husbands, and for widows, unmarried women and nuns, horse-riding was recommended which sometimes provided enough clitoral stimulation to result in an orgasm! But horse-riding didn't bring complete relief, and masturbation was seen as ‘self-abuse’. The only acceptable and trustworthy treatment was that given by a doctor or midwife who massaged the reproductive organs with one finger inside, in conjunction with the use of oils and lubricants. This ‘medical treatment’ was often recommended, and women were told to undergo it regularly!

By the 19th century, this practice was common in Europe and South America. During this period, the medical profession wasn't always trusted by the public as many doctors didn't have scientific training, and few treatments were effective, but, thanks to genital massage, doctors were able to handle hysteria with great success! Women returned for treatment time and time again, willing to pay for numerous follow-up appointments. Up to and including the 20th century, men believed that women were not entitled to sexual desire or pleasure, so this practice wasn’t ever connected to feminine sexuality. It was simply a good source of income for the medical profession. This ‘handiwork’ was relatively boring and exhausting as some women needed to be massaged for an hour before ‘paroxysm’ (otherwise known as an orgasm today). It was improper for women to have any form of sex drive. They were seen as passive receivers of the male libido in order to keep their husbands happy, and to have children. (No wonder so many women were sexually frustrated!)

This encouraged entrepreneurs of the time to experiment with a promising concept. It has been discovered that vibrators were used for medical purposes from as early as 1860 when they appeared in various shapes and sizes. Some were water-driven, others had foot pedals, and some were even steam-driven! The Chattanooga was a very well-known model. The apparatus was 2 m tall, and needed a few men to run it. The stream-driven apparatus was kept in a small room where two men stocked it with coal. The wall of the engine room had a hole in it through which a mechanical arm on the machine stretched to the consulting room where doctors would use this vibrating arm to carry out a patient’s massage. Hydrotherapy (the shooting of water directly on the patient's genitals) was also effective and quickly became fashionable. (No wonder so many women swear by a shower head today!) But these methods were often messy, expensive and difficult to transport. In the 1880s, a British doctor designed the first electrical vibrator – an apparatus of industrial proportions which became a permanent fixture in doctors’ consulting rooms and was designed to allow women to orgasm in less than 10 minutes!

At the turn of the century, the potential of the hand-held vibrator was discovered, and was in reality the driving force behind the design of the small electric motor. The evolution of the vibrator speaks volumes about people's priorities. The first vibrator which could be taken home was patented in 1902. It was the fifth electrical appliance to ever see the light of day! The first four were the toaster, sewing machine, kettle and a fan. The vacuum cleaner, iron and electric frying pan only appeared 10 years later! Of course, this makes perfect sense! Ask any woman today if she’d choose her vibrator or her iron... the answer is obvious!

By 1917, there were more vibrators than toasters in American households! They became popular gifts as advertisements in catalogues and department stores showed women with long hair massaging their stiff shoulders with a banana- shaped vibrator. The appliance was shown to serve numerous functions, and was supplied as a nail file, hair brush, back-scratcher and even a connection for vacuum cleaners. In contrast to the shocking pink, blue and sometimes even black models which overwhelm today’s market – the most popular vibrators colours back then were avocado, gold and orange.

The film industry boom in the 1920s saw the demise of the vibrator industry. Vibrators appeared in movies regularly, and took on an overtly sexual connotation. For almost 40 years, the vibrator disappeared from the public eye. From 1950 to the 1970s, the vibrator became what academics describe as ‘camouflaged technology’. This lasted until the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s brought the sexy plaything back into focus. Suddenly, the vibrator was more than a medical appliance and more than an item used in pornographic films – it was a political symbol! Author and artist Beattie Dodson started masturbation groups for women in order to heighten their sexual awareness, and introduced them to the wonder of the Hitachi Magic Wand – still a well-known vibrator today which could just as well double as a shoulder massager. Her book, Sex for One, was translated into eight different languages, and its launch coincided with the opening of a sex shop for woman called “Eve's Garden” in New York City. In the 1990s, radical feminists brought vibrators to the foreground again through the Reagan government. When AIDS was discovered, a list of safe sexual practices was posted to every home in America. Vibrators appeared on this list!

Author of The Technology of Orgasm, Rachel Maines started out studying sewing, but was surprised to discover that the back of her sewing machine was filled with vibrator advertisements! It took her 20 years to study the history of the vibrator, and in 1999 her book was finally released. Clarkson University was scared that this would encourage a new breed of alumni, and promptly fired her! Her book became one of the top sellers on the history of technology of all time.

Today, an overwhelming 25% of women own vibrators, and an impressive 10% of American couples use these in their sexual relationship with their mate. And all of this thanks to hysteria, opportunistic engineers and early doctors’ tired fingers!

Sources: www.slate.com, www.health24.com, www.technologyoforgasm.com, www.tbd.com, www.malamun.vox.com and "The Technology of Orgasm: 'Hysteria,' The Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction," by Rachel Maines (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).