Mention vibrators, and most people think of women's sexual pleasure. But that was the furthest thing from the minds of the male doctors who invented them more than a century ago. They were more interested in a labor-saving device to spare their own hands the fatigue caused by treating "female hysteria." This condition involved a number of vague, chronic complaints in adult women, including: anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasies, and moisture inside the vagina. Female hysteria was actually women's sexual frustration. The history of vibrators is a strange tale that provides insights into both the history of sex toys, and cultural notions about women's sexuality.
Until the 20th century, American and European men believed that women were incapable of sexual desire and pleasure. Women of that era basically concurred. They were socialized to believe that "ladies" had no sex drive, and were merely passive receptacles for men's unbridled lust, which they had to endure to hang on to their husbands and have children. Not surprisingly, these beliefs led to a great deal of sexual frustration on the part of women.
Over the centuries, doctors prescribed various remedies for hysteria (named for the Greek for "uterus"). In the 13th century, physicians advised women to use dildos. In the 16th century, they told married hysterics to encourage the lust of their husbands. Unfortunately, that probably didn't help too many wives, because modern sexuality research clearly shows that most women rarely experience orgasm from intercourse, but need direct clitoral stimulation. For hysteria unrelieved by husbandly lust, and for widows, and single and unhappily married women, doctors advised horseback riding, which, in some cases, provided enough clitoral stimulation to trigger orgasm.
But many women found little relief from horseback riding, and by the 17th century, dildos were less of an option because the arbiters of decency had succeeded in demonizing masturbation as "self-abuse." Fortunately, an acceptable, reliable treatment emerged: having a doctor or midwife "massage the genitalia with one finger inside, using oil of lilies or crocus" as a lubricant. With enough genital massage, hysterical women could experience sudden, dramatic relief through "paroxysm," which virtually no medical authority called orgasm, because, of course, everyone knew that women did not have sexual feelings, so they could not possibly experience sexual climax.
By the 19th century, physician-assisted paroxysm was firmly entrenched in Europe and the U.S. It was a godsend for many doctors. At that time, the public viewed physicians with tremendous distrust. Most doctors had little or no scientific training, and they had few treatments that worked. But thanks to genital massage, hysteria was a condition doctors could treat with great success. This produced large numbers of grateful women, who returned faithfully and regularly, eager to pay for additional treatment.
But treating hysteria also had a downside for doctors— tired fingers from all that massage. Nineteenth-century medical journals lamented that many hysterics taxed their doctors' stamina. Physicians complained of having trouble maintaining therapeutic massage long enough to produce the desired result. (For a look at 19th century treatment of female hysteria, see the film, The Road to Wellville.)
Necessity being the mother of invention, physicians began experimenting with mechanical substitutes for their hands. They tried a number of genital massage contraptions, among them water-driven devices (the forerunners of today's shower massagers), and steam-driven pumping dildos. But these machines were cumbersome, messy, often unreliable, and sometimes dangerous.
In the late 19th century, electricity became available for home use and the first electric appliances were invented: the sewing machine, the electric fan, and the toaster. These were followed soon after, around 1880, by the electromechanical vibrator, patented by an enterprising British physician, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville. The electric vibrator was invented more than a decade before the vacuum cleaner and the electric iron.
Electric vibrators were an immediate hit. They produced paroxysm quickly, safely, reliably, and inexpensively—and as often as women might desire it. By the dawn of the 20th century, doctors had lost their monopoly on vibrators and hysteria treatment as women began buying the devices themselves. Advertisements appearing in such magazines as "Women's Home Companion," "Needlecraft," and the Amazon.com of that era, the "Sears & Roebuck Catalogue" ("...such a delightful companion....all the pleasures of youth...will throb within you....").
Electricity gave women vibrators, but ironically, within a few decades, electricity almost took the devices away from them. With the invention of motion pictures, vibrators started turning up in pornography and gained an unsavory reputation. By the 1920s, they had become socially unacceptable. Vibrator ads disappeared from the consumer media. From the late 1920s and well into the 1970s, they were difficult to find.
But some inventions are so useful that they survive despite attempts at suppression. Today, an estimated 25 percent of women own vibrators, and 10 percent of American couples use them in partner sex. Just think, we owe the world's most popular sex toy to physicians' fatigued fingers.
For more on the history of vibrators, read "The Technology of Orgasm: 'Hysteria,' The Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction," by Rachel Maines (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).