Love & Sex

Hysterical Women: A Visual History of the Vibrator

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From medical device to "personal back massager," the vibrator has a rich, euphemistic history.

Today we associate vibrators with one thing: our pleasure. In the nineteenth century, however, vibrators were only used by physicians, and served the sole medical purpose of curing hysteria–that umbrella diagnosis pushed upon difficult (read: sexually frustrated) or ailing women. At the turn of the twentieth century when these gadgets first hit the market for personal use, they weren’t advertised as having any sexual benefits. Instead, manufacturers politely and euphemistically referred to the healing qualities of personal massagers, like circulation stimulation and healthier, glowing skin.

As the decades passed by and talk around female sexuality became more lax, vibrators stopped looking so much like common household appliances and started resembling what they truly are: tools to make us come. The evolving shape of vibrators reflects not only our tech advancements but our social and sexual progress. The fine folks over at Babeland let us photograph some of their historical collection, part of their Vintage Vibrator Museum.

Arnold Massage Vibrator, 1909

What do antique sex toys and Mark Twain have in common? The Arnold Massage Vibrator. It’s rumored that Samuel Clemens himself used this early model. Resembling a hand mixer, the Arnold Massager was advertised as a facial exfoliator to preserve a perpetual youth (orgasms will do that).

Polar Cub Electric Vibrator, 1921

With a teal wooden handle and a cloth cord, the Polar Cub Electric is pretty unassuming. Originally advertised as a beauty aid, the illustration on the box depicts a woman using the vibrator on her cheeks. Claire Cavanah, co-founder of Babeland, explained to us the ominous looking textured vibratodes: "The textures are just another way to deliver vibration with different sensations." The use of textured add-ons is still used today, in such modern reincarnations as the Waterdancer.

 

Vibra King Activator, 1922

While it closely resembles something you would style your hair with, the Vibra King Activator came with enough textured extensions to be a true marriage aid.

Wahl Hand-e, 1940

The box purports that this product is for the "face, scalp, and body", but we all know the emphasis was on "body". It was coil-operated and much quieter than the competitors.

 

Oster Stim-u-lax for Barbers, 1948 

Though initially invented for barbers to give a post-cut scalp massage, it was soon discovered that the Stim-u-lax would serve a higher purpose in the boudoir. Like a mini-engine strapped to your hand, it was built for fans of forceful digital play. Fun fact: Sex educator Betty Dodson has a special place in her, erm, crotch, for this vibrator. She credits much of her sexual awakening to its singular power.

Andis Vibrator, 1942

The  super-mechanical Andis primarily promotes blood circulation, according to the box. Why? "Vibrators were marketed as personal massagers, used to relieve sore muscles, which made it acceptable to buy one," explains Claire Cavanah. Shy vibrator slingers like Brookstone are still using the code word "personal massagers," but we like it better when when they’re straightforward. The Andis was a sure-to-succeed orgasm-inducer.

 

Norelco Massager, 1969

Advertised as a back massager, Philips was the first to make the powerful wand design for "personal care." The Norelco was the vibrating prelude to the top-selling Hitachi Magic Wand of today.

Vibra Slim, 1960

If you were looking for an inconspicuous way to get off in 1960, the Vibra Slim was the way to go. Essentially, this was a bar that you could ride or lie across as you got off. A compact answer to vibrating couches and table, vibrating furniture is still in common use today.

Niagara Hand Unit, 1968

The vanguard of vibrator personalization, the Niagara Hand Unit came equipped with a dial for speed, allowing for adjustment throughout use. The Niagara was also one of the first vibrators suited for the versatility of internal and external use. With a bulky cord and metal exterior, we’d venture to guess that this one wasn’t easy to clean.

Personal vibrator, 1970

This slimline, bullet-shaped vibrator was the first sex toy to actually be marketed as such. Lacking the bells and whistles of early vibrators, the Personal vibrator reflected the newly-explored, open sexuality of the 70s. Finally, a phallus for the public.

 

Prelude 3, 1976

The Prelude 3 comes with the largest selection of attachments and vibratodes, some appearing suction-like. "Although it's shaped like a suction cup, it doesn't have a suction function," Cavanah explains. "It would fit over the clitoris quite nicely."

To see more work by Tommy Kearns, click here.