Hysterical Women: A Visual History of the Vibrator

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

By Kate Hakala

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).

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