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Updated 06 January 2014

The history of the vibrator

We take a look at the different shapes and sizes of vibrators through the ages, including Cleopatra's bee-filled calabash.

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The history of the vibrator goes back hundreds even thousands of years. It is believed that Cleopatra may have been one of the first women to have a vibrator. Hers would have been a calabash filled with buzzing bees.

We’ve come a long way since then even in terms of design, but perhaps socially and psychologically we have in fact regressed.

Roman and Greek philosophers and healers from as early as the 4th century (maybe even before) wrote much about the idea of ‘hysteria’ in women. Hysteria was considered to be a disease of the womb which caused irritability, discomfort and a general malaise. Today we would just call it sexual frustration. For over a thousand years, the most common treatment for hysteria was therapeutic genital massage.

During the 19th century genital massage was considered a very respectable and effective means of dealing with hysteria. Hysteria was a very interesting condition to doctors and other healthcare professionals as it appeared to be a chronic condition and patients required regular massage therapy to alleviate their symptoms. The massage was administered by doctors or midwives using aromatic oils and continued until the women reached a state of “hysterical paroxysm” (orgasm). The massage was considered a medical treatment and there was no shame attached to it. In fact, doctors often encouraged unmarried women and nuns in particular to go for regular therapy!

Booming business

The genital massage business was booming. Doctors believed that more than 70% of women suffered from hysteria and required treatment. The problem was that the massage treatments were all done by hand and a patient could take up to an hour to reach paroxysm. There was naturally also the issue of the professional getting terribly, terribly tired. They needed a device which would do the job faster and more efficiently so they could save their energy and process more patients in a day, thereby making more money. And so the vibrator was born.

There is very clear evidence of vibrators being used medically from around 1860 onwards. They came in all manner of interesting designs and were powered in ingenious ways. Some were water-driven, some used foot pedals, some had hand cranks and some were even steam-powered.

The Chattanooga is a particularly famous model; it stood nearly 2m tall and required a couple of men to operate it. Being steam-powered, the engine of the machine was located in a small room and two men shoveled coal into the furnace and monitored the steam temperature, pressure, and thrust required to drive the Chattanooga. The engine room was separated from the doctor’s room by a wall which had a hole in it. A mechanical arm extended from the engine through the wall and into the consulting room where the doctor controlled it and used the vibrating arm to administer the appropriate genital massage to the grateful patient.

Electrified before the iron

The technology associated with the evolution of the vibrator speaks volumes about people’s priorities. They were already producing battery-operated vibrators by the turn of the century. Not only that but it was also the fifth household appliance ever to be electrified! The first four comprised the toaster, the sewing machine, the tea kettle, and the fan. Interestingly enough, the vacuum cleaner, iron and frying pan were only electrified some 10 years later!

Vibrators were popular gifts for women for many years after they became available to consumers from around 1900. They were often advertised in department store catalogues as “blood-circulators”, and promised to restore the “youthful glow” to ladies’ cheeks.

The film industry boom of the 20s really spelled the downfall of vibrators in respectable society. As with the advancement of any visual technology, the pornography industry saw film as a very lucrative opportunity for them. Vibrators started appearing regularly in these films and they took on a whole new smutty image. The vibrator dropped from general public view for nearly 40 years. The feminist movement of the 60s and 70s brought them sharply back into focus. Suddenly, the buzzing mechanical delight of the vibrator became more than medical and more than porn; suddenly it was a political symbol.

Whatever its guise, the vibrator is nothing new. It has been around for at least 150 years and the end of its popular reign is not currently foreseeable – if anything, it is more popular than ever!

 
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