I Want To Go There: The Vintage Vibrator Museum

The vibrator. Next to penicillin and electricity, it stands as quite possibly one of the greatest inventions ever. 

Vibrators come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with names that range from those intended to seduce newbies and beginners (Rosebud, Blueberry Buzz, The Butterfly Kiss) to the expertise pieces (Hitachi, The Purple Rabbit, the steampunk inspired Eroscillator) that come with enough force to, well, you know what I’m saying. However, the vibrator isn’t a recent blessing brought on by years of thought and want. The vibrator has been in the hands and hearts of many women throughout the ages, though not marketed with the same sort of openly sex positive honesty as many sex toy shops, aficionados, and other community ilk are able to offer today. No, the vibrator, and really, the reason for the vibrator, has been an evolving process that has been at almost every step of the way through the history of sexuality, sexual health, societal attitudes, and intimate body knowledge. Our cultural landscape in many ways has been defined by what has and hasn’t been said about the vibrator, and why this nifty and oh-so-enjoyable gadget has a permanent staying power in our collective history. Which brings us to possibly one of the best museums in recent times: The Vintage Vibrator Museum.

Innocently (maybe not) started by the co-founder of now famed sex toy shop Babeland, Rachel Venning, the Vintage Vibrator Museum came into existence when Venning happened along an antique vibrator at her local flea market. The spark was lit and it made sense that if one was known for creating a sex positive space where one could purchase the very toys for orgasmic bliss, surely there was power in archiving the vibrator’s humble past?

The Wahl-Model 32617. c. 1919. Made of steel. Image copyright The Vintage Vibrator Museum.

Which brings us to the next point: sex toys aren’t a recent thing. One only has to look at any one of the numerous Greek, Egyptian, or East Asian artifacts to know that people have been getting their freak on forever. However, with changing times come changing minds, and with the onset of Christianity, sex in Western culture and wherever it went off to colonize, became more of a taboo, let’s not discuss this in polite company type of thing; a sacred ritual between husband and wife, man and woman, purpose of procreation only. Orgasms became quiet little entities that existed, but remained like unknown treasures, just waiting to be found. And then, thanks to the Victorians, came hysteria.

Not that hysteria hadn’t been around. According to the Vintage Vibrator Museum, hysteria was again something that was around even with the Greeks. Plato categorized it as the uterus that escaped from the body, wandering, and wreaking havoc as it meandered all about. Not only is this the best definition for sexual frustration ever, but the prescription of the time? Olisbos, aka stone or wood dildos. These were used to prevent hysteria when it was most likely to occur, during trials of spousal separation so that uteri wouldn’t go on a jail break, in turn causing them symptoms that ranged from emotional instability to overexcitement (not surprisingly being re-defined as the social climate changed over time). This became apparent even in medieval times when nuns and the unmarried were recommended for “massage treatments.” Oh my.

The Handy Hannah Vibrator. c 1950. Handy Hannah Products Corp. (Whitman, MA, USA). mage copyright The Vintage Vibrator Museum.

However, hysteria might have its greatest influence during the Victorian era when, with the onset of Kellog’s “health” and “vitality” emphasis, hysteria became a chronic condition. From the Vintage Vibrator Museum History Section:

…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.”

Perhaps I’ll let go of this one aspect of my eternal grudge against Freud, but the guy basically tricked society into giving women orgasms through one of the best orgasm-giving devices ever: the vibrator (never mind the countless amount of other damage he did with his penis envy and immature clitoral orgasm garbage). Because the profession of “alleviating” women of such maladies often provoked repetitive stress syndrome and hand injury, the mechanical vibrator was introduced as a means to ease the process for physicians, as well as provide a quick turn around. To this day, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank the goals of capitalistic thinking enough.

Gilbert No. 8.c.1933 A.C. Gilbert Co. (New Haven, CT, USA). Image copyright The Vintage Vibrator Museum.

Because of the vibrator’s then reputation of a “medical tool,” it remained a relatively inconspicuous object for many years, eventually catching on with such well-known brands as Andis and General Electric, parlaying its status from medical treatment to household massage item. From the Museum:

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 Vibroette.c. 1920 Original box. Allover MFG Co. (USA). Image copyright The Vintage Vibrator Museum.

However, when the 1920s came rolling around, vibrators began to surface in pre-porn stag films, cementing their status as a gateway for women’s sexuality, a corrupter of good, decent women everywhere. Vibrators all but disappeared, though the resourceful few still knew where to get “back massagers” or “special appliances” for those me times. It wasn’t until the sixties and the rise of the women’s movement, along with changing attitudes about sexuality, sexual behavior, and access to birth control, that the vibrator finally came out as what they had been all along: sex toys (“marital aids” for the easily offended).

Hysterical women represented a large and lucrative market for physicians. These patients neither recovered nor died of their condition but continued to require regular treatment. Russell Thacher Trall and John Butler, in the late nineteenth century, estimated that as many as three-quarters of the female population were “out of health,” and that this group constituted America’s single largest market for therapeutic services. Furthermore, orgasmic treatment could have done few patients any harm, whether they were sick or well, thus contrasting favorably with such “heroic” nineteenth-century therapies as clitoridectomy to prevent masturbation. It is certainly not necessary to perceive the recipients of orgasmic therapy as victims: some of them almost certainly must have known what was really going on. – Rachel Maines, The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” The Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.

Ad from The Syracuse Herald.1919.

Thus, here we are now, with a bevy of choices as to what toys we choose and hopefully the support for however we get off. But with getting off, there is a degree of pleasure in seeing where exactly we have come from as far as our faithful companions (the vibrator) have come. While talking about female masturbation is still generally taboo, we live in a contradictory culture that encourages women to get off, yet on whatever they want. It’s the same culture that convinced itself that uteri wandered among the masses, creating chaos and that to “cure” this terrible malady, all one had to do was to go see a doctor who would massage your clitoris. Now we look at that sentence and think, how silly, yet one can hope, that in another hundred years time, we will look back at the ridiculousness of women who were expected to have sex, yet weren’t supposed to have sex, or have sex as a performance for someone else, but to never really think about their own pleasure. Maybe every chick flick, hard-to-swallow sex scene that involved a woman instantly panting in pleasure as some sweatier than manageable guy slams his dick into her as if it were the best thing to ever happen since sliced bread will seem as ridiculous as one of the many Victorian “personal massager” ads ( as well as super white-washed, heteronormative, and sexist in every which way).

But until then, seeing the visual history of our friendly little treasures brings a certain face-to-face recognition of where we have come from and how far we haven’t really come at all. Moreover, it’s also about how far we have come in general, and the contraptions and devices that have been used to get off, even disguised in the name of social graces. But the true measure of how we go forward, and really, the same sort of social conditions that everyone faces, is best displayed in Maine’s book, The Technology of Orgasm, when she presents her research on vibrators and orgasms to a room full of her male peers:

The men are divided into laughter and blank stares, the former, I gather, are those for whom my research confirms that women are as sexual as they’d always hoped, and the latter are those for whom it confirms that women are as sexual as they’d always feared.

Until the day when that isn’t even a remote possibility, lets keep the vibrators handy and the, uh, the goods, a-coming.

 

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