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A Night at the Vibrator Museum

Early vibrators were hand-cranked, two-person jobs -- and prescribed by doctors. How far we've come since then.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Miss Karen via Flickr

 
 
 
 

This story was originally published at Salon.

 I can now say that I’ve used a turn-of-the-century vibrator — on my hand, but still.

The silver, hand-cranked contraption is usually kept behind glass at Good Vibrations’ Antique Vibrator Museum in San Francisco — but staff sexologist Carol Queen made a rare exception. “This is very special,” she whispered, unlocking the case and carefully pulling out Dr. Johansen’s Auto Vibrator, a relic from 1904. The “auto” part is not so much: It was a two-person job, with her having to crank the device’s handle to get it thrumming. Pressing my finger tips to its inch-wide circular platform of pleasure, I was pleasantly surprised by its power.

As I was by the two other vintage vibrators that I got to try out — the White Cross Electric Vibrator from 1917, which has a pronged aperture that makes it seem like the ancestor of Jimmyjane’s Form 2, and the Beautysafe Vibrator from the 1940s, which is reminiscent in look, feel and sound to a car waxer.

The U.S. release this week of “Hysteria,” a Maggie Gyllenhaal flick about a Victorian-era doctor who invents an electric massager and uses it to bring about “paroxysms” of relief in female patients with “hysteria,” seemed like a good excuse to get a private tour of the museum, which provided vibes that appear in the film, to learn about the history that’s left out of the movie’s fictionalized story line — and, of course, to try out antique pleasure devices while on the clock.

While the movie is set in the 19th century, doctors’ “manual manipulation” as a treatment for female hysteria goes back as far as the second century. “That took too long,” said Queen. “So doctors started training midwives to do it.” In Rachel P. Maines’ “The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria,’ the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction,” she quotes a 1653 medical book that advises:

When these symptoms indicate, we think it necessary to ask a midwife to assist, so that she can massage the genitalia with one finger inside, using oil of lilies, musk root, crocus, or [something] similar. And in this way the afflicted woman can be aroused to the paroxysm.

Of course, this paroxysm was orgasm, but it was rarely acknowledged as such. Instead, it was said to be the exorcism of hysteria, a vague, catch-all diagnosis for female ailments thought to arise from a displaced uterus or, charmingly, a “wandering womb.” “Some of these women probably had PTSD, some of them were overworked, some of them had extreme stress in their lives, some of them almost certainly had sexual issues going on,” Queen explains. As Maines points out, “many of its classic symptoms are those of chronic arousal: Anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasy, sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, lower pelvic edema, and vaginal lubrication.” Married women were often given the prescription of sex with their husbands.

Eventually, doctors turned to technology to speed up the laborious treatment. “It started with hydraulic devices, water jets, but that really only worked well at spas,” said Queen. In 1869, an American physician patented the Manipulator, a padded table with a steam-powered vibrating mound that rested between the legs. A decade later, British physician Joseph Mortimer Granville – who’s at the center of “Hysteria,” albeit heavily fictionalized — patented a battery-operated vibrator for treatment of muscle pain. Interestingly, he was vehemently against the device being used for hysteria. He wrote, “I have avoided, and shall continue to avoid the treatment of women by percussion, simply because I do not wish to be hoodwinked, and help to mislead others, by the vagaries of the hysterical state.”

 
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