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the vintage trend: good vibrations

If you thought the ‘Rampant Rabbit’ was a modern gal’s pal, then think again! The vibrator has been around since the turn of the century!

The electric vibrator was introduced in 1902 and thus began the broad marketing of vibrators to the masses.  Considering how strict cultural codes were for women in the Victorian period, it is rather funny that we can credit them with giving us the gift of the vibrator! The comical thing is, everyone hid under the pretext that this was a medical need, not a sexual need and society bought into it, hook, line and sinker.

An advert in Woman’s Home Cosmopolitan in 1906 emphasised the importance of the vibrator over the hand as a way to achieve orgasm…  “Why has electrical massage taken the place of the manual or Swedish method? Simply because it can be applied more rapidly, uniformly and deeply than by hand, and for as long a period as may be desired.” Say no more.

For centuries prior to the 1900s, doctors had been treating women for ‘female hysteria’ by essentially performing a ‘pelvic massage’, which was essentially masturbation. This treatment was particularly popular in the Victorian period (where sexual gratification was unheard of for ladies – wives just made babies for goodness sake!), but as the doctor was performing the ‘vulvar stimulation’, as opposed to one’s husband, it was therefore nothing to do with sex, but merely a medical need to cure their ‘female hysteria’. Symptoms of this “hysteria” were anything from shortness of breath, gaut, ‘ugliness’, ‘grumpiness’, obesity, poor skin and insomnia!

In short, most ailments in women were attributed to this deprivation of sex or more specifically, of an orgasm. ‘Female hysteria’ was a consistent theme in medical literature from the time of Ancient Greece right through to 1952, when it was finally rejected as a genuine illness. Avicenna, the Muslim founder of early modern medicine advised women that they should not treat themselves for this condition but that it was “a man’s job, suitable only for husbands and doctors”. Doctors reportedly found the task of relieving hysteria to be both time consuming and hard work, and often delegated the job to their midwives. Eventually, the vibrator was invented to take the work out of it for those poor, fatigued doctors.

Hysteria takes its name from the Greek word for the womb, hysteros, since it was originally assumed to be the product of a blocked reproductive system. As far back as the 16th century, single women were advised to take ‘vigorous horseback exercise’ or use a rocking chair to relieve signs of anxiety. Hysterical paroxysm was the term used in the Victorian period to describe what we would now term as an orgasm.

Around 1880, Dr JM Grancille patented the first mechanical vibrator and in 1902 Hamilton Beach, an American company patented the first electric vibrator for retail sale, making the vibrator the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified after the sewing machine, fan, kettle and toaster and a decade before the vacuum and iron, somewhat unbelievably.

The magazine Good Housekeeping ran a “tried and tested” on vibrators in 1909 and in 1918, Sears, Roebuck & Company offered a vibrator attachment for a home motor that would also drive a churn, a mixer and a sewing machine. Portable vibrators were promoted as “delightful companions” in 1922. Until, that is, the arrival of porn which scandalised the use of vibrators as they were featured in many of the French ‘Stag’ films of the 1920s. Vibrators soon disappeared from Good Housekeeping Magazine and the household medical cabinet and were swiftly concealed under beds and thrown into the back of ladies’ underwear drawers until the swinging 60s when female sexual liberation was, once again, considered worthy of celebration.

Rachel P. Maines is an esteemed academic who earned her doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University in 1983 and who wrote The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction in 1999.  This book introduced research that has spawned an industry into the history of the vibrator and has since been translated into French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. Maines observed that doctors actually made a great deal of profit from female hysteria, since the patients were at no risk of death, but needed constant treatment. A documentary on her research is now available on DVD, Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm, which was recently screened in the US as part of a celebration of Women’s History Month.

This fascinating period in women’s history and in particular, Maines’ research, has left screen and playwrights ‘buzzing’ with excitement (couldn’t resist) and has even inspired a Broadway play to be written by Sarah Ruhl, called ‘In the Next Room’ otherwise known as the ‘Vibrator Play’, which was nominated for three Tommy awards. The Broadway comedy focuses on a neglected doctor’s wife and the “scientific experiment” he is conducting with two patients in the room next door. Most recently the film Hysteria (2011) starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, and directed by Tanya Wexler, is definitely worth a watch.

Today’s sexual climate is certainly the result of the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movement of a generation ago, though clearly sex toys have an even deeper past. Now, lingerie and sex shops make owning a vibrator glamorous, fun and girly, which is a welcome development. Even though female hysteria has justly disappeared as a medical diagnosis, its remedy – an orgasm – still seems pretty healthy after all these years.

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