The History of Vibrators

Back in the day (2 weeks ago) Brandi sent me a link to an article, also from back in the day (a month ago) and from the Times Online about the history of vibrators  – not “personal massagers” but straight up vibrators. The money quote:

Hippocrates thought the womb wasn’t a fixed item but wandered about the body looking for trouble. At the moment of orgasm, it gripped the windpipe causing the breathless panting so familiar to watchers of When Harry Met Sally.

Can you imagine your uterus wandering about, spoiling for a fight? I’m so amused by the entire image, I’ve started doodling womb cartoons (mine, if you’re curious, has really high heels on and wears those badass stockings I can never pull off without looking like a saggy baggy elephant).


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  1. 1
    nomadshan says:

    Sad that the NYT thinks most folks know “that breathless panting” only from Harry/Sally.  And a bummer if that’s the case.

  2. 2
    nomadshan says:

    Oops—I meant Times Online.  :P

  3. 3
    Wryhag says:

    I’m convinced my uterus has slipped into one or the other of my saddlebags and, napping peacefully, just wants to be left alone.  Untold years of wrenching cramps and oozing blood will do that to an organ.

  4. 4
    AgTigress says:

    I am amazed and disappointed that that article does not cite The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines (Johns Hopkins U. P., 1999, paperback edn. 2001).  She was the person who first did all this research and published it, in a work that is both scholarly and readable, so she certainly deserves proper acknowledgement.  I recommend her book unreservedly.

    I can’t find my copy at the moment:  every time I lend it to someone I have real difficult getting it back!

  5. 5
    AgTigress says:

    That should have been ‘difficulty’.

    Here is the amazon link to the book:

  6. 6
    Flo says:

    Dude I am convinced my uterus has packed up and left me for a lifelong vocation of sipping Mai Tais on the beach while writing a salacious novel.  And in it’s place has left evil lawn gnomes.  *cries*

    Now, if Hippocrates is right, that means there are tiny evil lawn gnomes carousing around inside my body beating me into a slimy pulp.  NNnnnnoooooooooooooOoooo!


  7. 7
    Anna says:

    I always liked studying ancient Greek Medicine.  Because obviously when you see a woman choking it’s because she hasn’t had enough moisture lately and her uterus is going for her brain!  Quick, have sex with her!  It will Save Her Life!

  8. 8
    Joanne says:

    I’m a tad confused… is that item pictured in the article a vibrator or a wood sander? If it’s a vibrator then all I can say is “whaaaaaaaaa” to whoever used it.

    I am interested in seeing a pic of the device that was described as being from “1860 involved what looks like a high-pressure fire hose”…. but I suppose it’s being guarded and handed down from one woman to another in whatever familes happened to be lucky enough to buy it.

    My uterus is out to a long lunch.

  9. 9
    AgTigress says:

    I am interested in seeing a pic of the device that was described as being from “1860 involved what looks like a high-pressure fire hose”….

    Probably the object illustrated in Maines 1999, 76, Fig.10, though it is dated a little later.  (Yes, I found my copy of the book).  Many of these devices in the 19th century were medical or spa equipment, rather than portable, personal utensils, and that is one of them.
    Seriously, anyone who is at all interested in this subject, buy or borrow Dr.Maines’s book.  It is fascinating on many levels, not least in reminding us of how adept we humans are at believing all sorts of contradictory things.

  10. 10
    SonomaLass says:

    I second AgTigress’ recommendation of Rachel Maines’ book.  It is fascinating.

    For those interested, you can see and read about The Manipulator (the table-sized steam-powered vibrator/massager) here.
    And yes, there are diagrams, but no salacious images.

    Wonderful reference, fascinating subject.  Thanks Brandi and SB Sara for the linkage!

  11. 11
    m.k. says:

    It’s one of the reasons why I came up with a pattern to knit a cuddly, portable Womb (published in Knitty – I’m working on a second version that can be used to tote small things around in (like menstrual cups) and I plan to call it Womb II: Hysteria.

  12. 12
    Cat Marsters says:

    Is this why so many heroes of those 1970s romances reacted to female nerves or anger with punishing kisses and violent sex?  “Honestly, I thought she was suffering from hysteria, but not having a vibrator to hand, I tried to relieve her condition in the medically prescribed fashion…”

  13. 13
    AgTigress says:

    I tried to relieve her condition in the medically prescribed fashion…”

    Alas, not even close…

  14. 14
    AgTigress says:

    M.K. – your womb doll is a delightful pattern – really pretty.  Much more elegant than ancient uterus votives in terracotta, as here (together with other body-parts, external and internal):
    which one dedicated at an appropriate shrine to pray for healing if the part in question was disordered in some way.
    Eye votives, penises and feet were more common than wombs in the period when this custom was prevalent.

  15. 15
    AgTigress says:

    While googling for an image of the early-Roman terracotta votives, I also came across this:
    Rather an elegant object, I thought.

  16. 16

    A non-literary recommendation (I hope you’ll forgive me for straying, but it’s hilarious): watch “The Road to Wellsville.” It brings up a lot of issues about sexuality in the early 1900’s, including a doctor “hand-a-bunging” the wife of the main character and a friend of the wife commenting that there’s no better trick in relieving tension than “a ride on my bicycle.”

    This all gets me thinking though: what happened for the lower class women who couldn’t afford the doctors and who’s husbands weren’t bothering? I suppose “hysteria” later on was generally diagnosed in women of the upper classes, but nonetheless. . . Oie vey. Hopefully they figured it out for themselves, no?

    Just another case of “doctor’s orders” historically screwing women (and in this case, literally!).

  17. 17
    Eva Lynn says:

    I wish to see your drawings, please. :)

  18. 18

    Oh my stars. A steam powered vibrator…
    The steampunk possibilities are endless and hideously comedic.

    The miniature high-pressure fire hose trained on the clitoris…hmm, these days most of us achieve that with the bathtub faucet

    That article is fascinating, horrifying and hilarious. I love that vibrators were electrified ten years before washers or carpet-sweepers.

  19. 19
    Cory says:

    I love that vibrators were electrified ten years before washers or carpet-sweepers.

    And now, you can buy them at Walgreens (I was just there, and it made me giggle like a 12 year old).

  20. 20
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    I expect to see a historical romance centered around one of these “clinics” published any day now…

  21. 21
    AgTigress says:

    I expect to see a historical romance centered around one of these “clinics” published any day now…

    Jayne Ann Krentz used the historical information about early 19thC treatment for hysteria in one of her Amanda Quick novels, after reading the Maines book.  I can’t remember off-hand which story it was.

  22. 22
    amy lane says:

    I always knew my uterus was some sort of itinerant wandering bringer of evil… how do you explain a nine year gap between thing 2 & thing 3 with no birth control… my uterus was in tahiti, and then didn’t tell me when it got back…bastard!  It didn’t even bring a fucking T-shirt!

  23. 23
    Holly says:

    I no longer have the oven that Tomboy Diva was cooked in.  Doctors uninstalled all my hardware right after she was born (I like mixed metaphors).  It served me well, but I don’t miss it or the ovaries.

    Tomboy Diva went trolling through Mommy’s nightstand one night while watching TV in Mommy’s bed.  Mommy had forgotten to put the little pink vibrator back where it belonged.  Mommy walked in to find TD inspecting it.  Mommy didn’t freak that much, tried to be nonchalant, explained it was for sore muscles.  “Oh, like when Daddy’s back is out, or your feet hurt?”  Why, yes, exactly.

    Mommy is still waiting for TD to mention the pink vibrator next time someone complains of sore muscles or inquires after the state of Daddy’s back.  It’ll probably happen at church.

  24. 24
    ev says:

    The miniature high-pressure fire hose trained on the clitoris…hmm, these days most of us achieve that with the bathtub faucet

    Or a hand held shower massager. Think the inventor was a woman or a man who was too tired from chasing his wife’s uterus??

  25. 25
    ev says:

    Hate those quote things.

    Holly- I wonder if mine is on vacation with yours? where do evicted uterus’ go once they are throw out of their homes?

    I don’t miss mine, but giving all my boxes of tampons to my daughter as a present was just too much fun to pass up.

    She still gives me a finger when I say something snarky. Can’t understand why.

  26. 26
    Holly says:

    I can totally imagine TD flipping me off in a few years.  I can’t quite see ahead to when she’ll need tampons – that just seems so weird. 

    Of course, when she hits puberty I plan to give her to my sister, and take one of my nephews in exchange.  Cause I don’t wanna live with no teenage girl.  She can come home when it’s time to start college.

  27. 27
    ev says:

    Can I just tell you that it doesn’t get any better when they hit college?? Possibly sending her to a convent until she is 25 or so might help. I don’t know yet, we have only hit 23. and if she is lucky I won’t find a hole to hide her in.

    spamword= away28. Do I think she will be away from me by 28/ No.

  28. 28
    Holly says:

    Ok, that’s just damn funny.  TD left with my sister for the week and I won’t see her till Thursday or Friday.  I will not start missing her till Wednesday night.

    I can’t imagine what a bitch I would be if I’d had her when I was supposed to, in my 20s.  The child takes reserve tanks of patience I never knew I had. 

    spamword=away3.  My limit for being away from her is three nights – after that I get antsy.  She knows it, too, the brat.

  29. 29
    ev says:

    i miss mine, after about a week. although she calls me enough when one of us is away, that I really don’t get the chance to miss her. Damn cell phones! When we were in New Jersey last week, I swear she called me at least 6 times every day!

    spamword- father82. I tried to send hers to jail at least this many times!!Sometimes I even succeeded. Hey, everyone has to have a hobby!

  30. 30
    Tina C. says:

    Good Housekeeping ran a “tried and tested” on vibrators in 1909, claiming they brought a glow to the face.

    I just bet they did.

    aid61—Aid for most all that ails ya, I’m thinking.

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