Enjoy viewing The CSPH’s collection of antique vibrators. Click on each thumbnail for the full-size image.
For all inquiries regarding our collection, please email our curator at firstname.lastname@example.org
|Pulsocon Hand Crank Vibrator||Macaura||Hartford, CT, USA||Vibrator||Patented: 1902|
|Hamilton Beach Vibrator||Hamilton-Beach Manufacturing Co.||Racine, WI, USA||Vibrator||Patented: June 24, 1902|
|New Life Vibrator||Hamilton-Beach Manufacturing Co.||Racine, WI, USA||Vibrator||Patented: June 24, 1902|
|White Cross Violet Ray Electric Vibrator||Master Electrical Co.||Chicago, IL, USA||Electrotherapy Device||1917|
|White Cross Electric Vibrator||Lindstrom, Smith Co.||Chicago, IL, USA||Vibrator||1917|
|Star Electric Massage Vibrator||The Fitzgerald Manufacturing Company||Torrington, CT, USA||Vibrator||1920s|
|Polar Cub “Type H” Vibrator||A.C. Gilbert Co.||New Haven, CT||Vibrator||1921|
|Branston Violet Ray High Frequency Generator||Chas A. Branston, LTD||Toronto, CA||Electrotherapy Device||1923|
|“Type F” Vibrator||Hamilton-Beach Manufacturing Co.||Racine, WI, USA||Vibrator||1930s?|
|Rolling Massager||Paul L. Hemp||USA||Massager||1932|
|The Electric Coronet Beauty Patter||The Lektron Corporation||Made in USA||Massager||1940|
|Scientific Jr Massage Instrument||John Oster Manufacturing Co.||Milwaukee, WI, USA||Massager||1940s|
|Scientific Massage Modality||John Oster Manufacturing Co.||Milwaukee, WI, USA||Massager||1940s|
|Hollywood Vibra-Tone||Fischer||Glendale, CA, USA||Vibrator||1940s|
|Vitalator||A.C. Gilbert Co.||New Haven, CT, USA||Massager||1940s-50s|
|Chic Figure Glorifier||Morris Struhl, Inc||New York, NY, USA||Massager||1950s|
|Sears Massager||Sears, Roebuck & Co.||Chicago, IL, USA||Massager||1950s|
|Handy-Hannah Electric Foot-Vibrator||Standard Products Corp.||Whitman, MA, USA||Massager||1950s|
|Ball Grip Massager||Kwik Way||St. Louis, MI, USA||Massager||1950s|
|Cycloid-Action Massage Device||Niagara||Brocton, NY; Adamsville, PA, USA||Massager||1954|
|Infra-Massage Heat Massager||International Biotical Corp||New York, NY, USA||Massager||1959|
|Relax-o-matic Backscratcher||Forda||Hong Kong||Vibrator||1960s|
|Handy-Hannah DeLuxe Vibrating Massager||Universal||New Britain, CT, USA||Massager||1960s|
|Rex-Ray Electric Vibrator||Rexall Drug Co.||Made in USA||Vibrator||1960s|
|Super Massage Hand Vibrator||Arcross||New York, NY, USA||Massager||1960s|
|Infra-Red||John Oster Manufacturing Co.||Milwaukee, WI, USA||Massager||1966|
|Handy Hannah Model-D||Standard Products Corp||Whitman, MA, USA||Massager||unknown|
|Super Dol Vibrator||Dol||Japan||Massager||unknown|
|Point Mini Massager||Creation||USA||Massager||unknown|
The CSPH has an ever-growing collection of antique vibrators and massagers, including one dating back to 1902! Currently, we are home to about 20 devices, with dates ranging from about 1902 to 1966!
So how did this wonderful piece of equipment come to be? While it is commonly understood that the vibrator was invented as a means to easily treat female hysteria, it is important to understand the circumstances in which gender relations and the dismissal of women’s sexuality allowed for this “disease” to rise to pandemic proportions among the Victorian middle-class women.
- Female Sexuality from the 18th – 20th century
- Suggested Reading
- Other Resources
Female Sexuality from the 18th – 20th century
The eighteenth century marked a shift in understanding about male and female relations, and a change in the conceptualization of gender. It symbolized the abandonment of Galen’s hierarchical ordered system, which had been in place since the second century A.D. In this system, the male and female reproductive organs were seen as homologous (the female anatomy was a turned inward version of the male), and female orgasm through stimulation of the clitoris was understood as a necessity for conception.1 Renaissance midwifery texts referred to the clitoris as that organ “which makes women lustful and take delight in copulation,” without which they “would have no desire, nor delight, nor would they ever conceive.”1 However, toward the end of the Enlightenment, a new model for male and female sexuality emphasized biological divergence, and the sexes were not only different but were “different in every conceivable respect of body and soul, in every physical and moral aspect”1. The belief that female orgasm was necessary for conception was “regarded as controversial if not manifestly stupid.”1
While scientific advances could in part be attributed to this shift, historian Thomas Laqueur claims this shift was influenced by the “political, economic, and cultural transformations of the eighteenth century,”1 and he argues that women’s bodies were used as grounds to justify their exclusion from the public sphere. One of the most influential proponents of women’s difference as justification for exclusion was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. From Rousseau’s perspective, women were as sexual as men, but practiced more restraint because they were innately more moral.1 He reduced women to their sexuality, while claiming, “The male is only a male now and again, the female is always female, or at least all her youth; everything reminds her of her sex.”1 The implications were that because women were more moral, they were therefore less rational than men and incapable of participating in the public sphere or obtaining an education outside the realm of domesticity.
With this change in thinking, there was an emergence of two types of women – those who were “pure” and those who were “licentious” (e.g. prostitutes, single mothers, and lesbians). The women who were pure were understood to be “passionless,” or less carnal and lustful than men.2 The concept of women’s passionlessness was a means of trying to control both men and women’s sexual urges. Women controlled men’s strong sexual appetite with her modesty, which the man would respect because he wished to retain her goodwill. From a cultural perspective, the nineteenth-century woman’s passionlessness served several different functions:
First, it was another attempt by men to exert their dominance over women by desexualizing relationships, as well as an attempt to protect their property rights in them.3 Second, middle-class moralists began to rise in power and saw aristocratic excesses as a threat to middle-class virtue and domestic security.3 “By elevating sexual control highest among human virtues, the middle-class moralists made female chastity the archetype for human morality.”3 Lastly, it was an attempt to control the rate of illegitimate births that had exploded during the start of the century.3 This was aided by various legal sanctions, such as the 1804 Napoleonic code and the 1834 Bastardy Clause. Where Frederick the Great had declared in 1756 that “unmarried mothers would no longer have to submit to shaming punishments, because he saw them as victims of seduction and abandonment,”4 under these new sanctions, men were the ones seen as victims of seduction by being forced into marriage by the women.4 Men were essentially relinquished under these new sanctions of their financial and moral responsibility to their illegitimate children. By implementing these laws, officials hoped women would think about the consequences before having sex.4
Until the twentieth century, hysteria was thought to have its “etiology in the female reproductive tract generally, and more particularly in [the woman’s] response to sexual deprivation” or overindulgence,4 and physicians could not determine, let alone agree, whether masturbation was a cause or symptom of hysteria.5 Some feminist scholars argue that hysteria, as it was seen in the nineteenth century, was not just a disease but was a way for men to make sense of and control women’s changing roles in U.S. and European society.6 This makes sense as the nineteenth-century ideal of women’s sexuality as pure or licentious can easily be attributed to the development of the hysteria disease paradigm. However, it seems that nineteenth-century medical professionals, who were seen as the judges and recorders of sexual behavior, both creating and investing in the dominant medical and social paradigms of the time, did not see a connection between hysteria and women’s new role, but rather used the disease to further exclude them from the public sphere.7 By feminizing this disorder, which “was so vaguely and subjectively defined that it might encompass almost any set of ambiguous symptoms that troubled a woman or her family,”4 all women were seen as frail and weak, thus unsuitable for the professional and public sphere.
As hysteria was a disease that primarily affected middle and upper class women, some historians attribute the disease to women’s sexual repression rather than excess, pointing out that the symptomatology of hysteria is analogous to that of chronic arousal. Symptoms of hysteria, which were recognized until the America Psychological Association eradicated it, included: “anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasy, sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, lower pelvic edema, and vaginal lubrication.”6
Typical treatment of hysteria was through manual vulvar massage administered by Western physicians or midwives, eliciting a “crisis” or “hysterical paroxysm” (orgasm).5, 6 Though descriptions of this treatment date back to first century A.D, which indicates the concept of hysteria was not unique to the nineteenth century, it seems nineteenth-century medical professionals considered hysteria to be the ‘pandemic’ of their time, with administering treatment comprising up to three-quarters of their practice.6
Given that women were allowed to experience little, if any, sexual pleasure during this time period, it is seemingly contradictory that treatment for “sexual deprivation” or “sexual overindulgence” was orgasm. However, it seems only a few physicians recognized the hysterical paroxysm as a sexual orgasm,6, 5 as Freudian theory held that “real women,” experienced sexual gratification through vaginal penetration alone, and accepted no substitutions.5 Since penetration was not involved in vulvar massage treatments, and thus did not mimic sexual intercourse, medical practitioners did not consider vulvar massage sexual. Interestingly, while there were no moral issues associated with vulvar massage, the insertion of the speculum was widely criticized by medical professionals for its “immoral effects on patients.”6, 5
Vulvar massage was not the only prescription for individuals suffering from hysteria, which causes some historians to speculate that this suggests that some physicians perceived these treatments as sexual. Such physicians would employ this treatment only when absolutely necessary, suggesting alternative forms of treatment, such as horseback riding, swinging, or taking carriage rides, in women who were nuns, unhappily married, or widowed, and often encouraging marriage in single women of a marriageable age.5,6 Though very few physicians believed men could have hysteria, there were some, albeit very few, cases of male hysterics. In cases of male hysteria, marriage and intercourse were often recommended, and there is no evidence to suggest men received genital massage as a form of treatment.6
As very few perceived this treatment as sexual – due in part to not recognizing the hysterical paroxysm as an orgasm and in part to the commonly held belief that only penetration was sexually gratifying to women – vulvar massage was not seen as a “sexual service” the way prostitution was. While those physicians who recognized the sexual character of the treatment had a reluctance about administering female genital massage due to propriety and would often delegate the task to a midwife, more evidence indicates physicians simply viewed the treatment as “tedious, difficult, and time consuming”, as performing vulvar massage often required skill that was difficult to learn and stamina to sustain the treatment long enough to produce results.6
II. The Need To Mechanize
Though vulvar massage had been practiced since the time of Hippocrates,6 it took several thousand years to mechanize treatment so that it was “routine, convenient, and affordable.”6 Where as many as one-half to three-quarters of women were considered hysteric in the nineteenth century, this group “constituted America’s single largest market for therapeutic services” as orgasmic treatment could do patients little harm, contrasting favorably with other nineteenth century therapies such as clitoridectomy (surgical removal of the clitoris) to prevent masturbation.6 It has been suggested that hysterical patients were seen as a good source of revenue, as treatment did not put the patient in any mortal danger but required regular treatment, and as hysteria was not life-threatening, patients would need to seek treatment for a long time.6 As this was an ailment that predominantly affected middle and upper class women, the suggestion of this being a good source of revenue seems justified. The invention of the vibrator in the 1880s significantly increased the number of patients a physician could treat per day, as a procedure that used to take over an hour now only took between five and ten minutes, thus physicians now had a means and a motive to mechanize.6
Though hydriatic massage was available as early as 1752, the equipment was expensive and limiting, as it centralized the doctor’s location due to its semi permanent installation and need for water source.6 In the late 1860s and early 1870s, American physician, George Taylor, patented a steam-powered massage device, designed to treat female disorders.6 The most significant and influential device to the future of the vibrator was the electromechanical vibrator, invented by British physician, Joseph Mortimar Granville, and was manufactured by Weiss in the 1880s. Like many future devices, Granville’s was battery powered and had different interchangeable vibratodes. Though Granville intended the device for use on male skeletal muscles and was opposed to its use on hysterics, many other physicians did not share his concern.6 Within fifteen years, dozens of manufacturers were producing battery powered and electric vibrators, which were more cost effective and portable than hydriatic and steam-powered devices.6 Reliable portable models were available by 1905, could conveniently be used on house calls.6
There were a couple of distinctive types of therapeutic massage devices: a “true vibrator,” massagers, and electrotherapy devices. According to historian Rachel Maines, the first and seemingly only historian to have written extensively on the history and cultural significance of the vibrator as either a medical/therapeutic device or as a sexual aid:
a true vibrator is a mechanical or electromechanical device imparting a rapid and rhythmic pressure through a contoured working surface, which is generally mounted at a right angle to the handle. The applicators usually take the form of a set of interchangeable rubber vibratodes contoured to the anatomical surfaces they are intended to address(p.11)6
In contrast, a massager has a flat or shallow working surface, and is intended primarily to massage the skeletal muscles. Electrotherapy apparatuses, the third type, are distinct from true vibrators and massagers in that they transmit mild electrical shocks to the tissues they are applied to.6
The vibrator became available as consumer self-therapeutic home device in the 1900s, which, according to some historians, eliminated the need for doctors to administer treatment.5 This shift has been attributed to couple of reasons. Primarily, it was more cost effective for patients. Home vibrators were available for about $5 (which would be approximately $125 today), where the cost of treatment by physicians was between $2-3 per visit (approximately $50-75 today).5 Additionally, they were more accessible, could be used in private or with a spouse, and gave the user more control.6 Finally the increasing availability of home electricity in the beginning of the century contributed to the electromechanical vibrator’s popularity.6 The vibrator was the fifth home appliance to be electrified (preceded by the sewing machine, fan, teakettle, and toaster), preceding the vacuum and electric iron by about ten years!6 While this could be interpreted as greater social acceptability, some historians speculate it was a response to demand and necessity.
The vibrator was marketed as a home therapeutic device from the beginning of the twentieth century, with the first ad appearing in 1899, until the 1930s, through advertisements in women’s magazines such as Needle Craft, Home Needlework Journal, Modern Women, Hearsts, McClure’s, Women’s Home Companion, and Modern Priscilla. 6, 5 These ads rarely appeared in magazines that sold for less than five cents, as it was more likely that consumers of less expensive magazines did not have access to electrical current. Similarly, they did not appear in magazines like Vanity Fair, which sold for more than twenty-five cents, as they could presumably afford more expensive treatments, such as spa trips and private manual massage.5 Again, this demonstrates that hysteria, or at least the treatment of hysteria, was strictly a middle and upper class phenomenon.
Between 1900 and 1920, the standard form of marketing was through mail order. By the 20s and 30s, some models, like Star, were available for retail.6 Vibrators were predominantly marketed toward women as a “health and relaxation aid” using suggestive but vague taglines such as “‘all the pleasures of youth … will throb within you.’”6 Marketing targeted toward men either encouraged them to buy them as gifts for their wives or to become door-to-door salesmen for the manufacturer.5 While a variety of models were available at all price ranges, and with various types of power, including electricity, foot pedal, and water, they would have been accessible only for middle and upper-class consumers.6 Aside from treatment for hysteria, some publications emphasized the “vibrotherapeutic” use of the devices to treat an array of ailments in both women and men, such as “arthritis, constipation, amenorrhea, inflammations, and tumors.”6
As with the ailment of hysteria, some historians have asserted that the accessibility and advertizing of the home therapeutic devices further influenced the alienation of women from the public sphere by emphasizing the role of the device in turning the woman’s home into a modern technology Utopia. The accessibility of home appliances subsequently reduced the number of times a woman would have to leave the home for doctor’s visits.5
While advertizing for the vibrator disappeared from home magazines in the 1930s after its social camouflage as home and professional medical instrument could no longer be sustained, massagers continued to appear in advertisements between 1930 and 1955.5 According to historians, it is unclear whether the vibrator lost its camouflage due to its appearance in erotic films in the 1920s, due to growing knowledge of female sexuality during this time, or a combination of the two.6 The vibrator, however, would stay absent from advertizing until its reemergence in the 1960s where it was openly marketed as a sexual aid.6
Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology by Thomas Laqueur
The Race of Hysteria; “Overcivilization” and the “Savage” Woman in Late Nineteenth-Century Obstetrics and Gynecology by Laura Briggs
Babeland’s Vintage Vibrator Museum
Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum
Center for Sex and Culture’s Collection of Antique Vibes
Phisick’s Collection of Antique Medical Devices – Dr Macaura’s Pulsocon
Electrotherapy Museum – Manual for White Cross Violet Ray Generator
- Laqueur, T. (1986). “Orgasm, generation, and the politics of reproductive biology.” Representations, 14, 1-41.
- Rousseau, J. (1979). “Book V.” In A. Bloom (trans.), Émile: Or, on education (384 – 409). New York, NY: Basic Books. (Original work published in 1762).
- Cott, N. F. (1978). Passionlessness: An interpretation of Victorian sexual ideology, 1790 – 1850. Signs, 4(2), 219-236.
- Clark, A. (2008). Desire: A history of European sexuality. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Maines, R. P. (1989, June). Socially camouflaged technologies: The case of the electromechanical vibrator. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 3-11.
- Maines, R. P. (1999). The technology of orgasm: “Hysteria,” the vibrator, and women’s sexual satisfaction. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Briggs, L. (2000). “The race of hysteria: ‘Overcivilization’ and the ‘savage’ woman in late nineteenth-century obstetrics and gynecology”. American Quarterly, 52(2), 246-273.