Vibrators have a long history of medical quackery before feminists renamed them sex toys

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In the contemporary moment of sex-positive feminism, praise for the vibrator’s orgasmic ability abounds. “They encompass everything, a blanket of electricity, which will flow through your veins, producing orgasms you didn’t know you were physically capable of having,” Erica Moen wrote in her “Oh Joy Sex Toy” web comic. . Vibrators today go hand in hand with masturbation and female sexuality.

Yet to American housewives of the 1930s, the vibrator looked like any other household appliance: a new, non-sexual electrical technology that could run on the same universal motor as their kitchen blenders and vacuum cleaners. Before small motors became cheap to produce, manufacturers sold a single motor base with separate attachments for a range of household activities, from sanding wood to drying hair, or healing the body with vibrations. electric.

In my research into the medical history of electricity, vibrators appear alongside galvanic battery belts and quack electrotherapy as one of many original home remedies from the turn of the 20th century.

Vibrate for health

The first electromechanical vibrator was a device called a “striker” invented by British physician Joseph Mortimer Granville in the late 1870s or early 1880s. Granville believed that vibrations fed the human nervous system, and he developed the striker as medical device to stimulate diseased nerves.

Current medical opinion considered hysteria to be a nervous disease, but Granville refused to treat female patients, “just because I don’t want to be fooled … by the vagaries of the hysterical state.” The vibrator began as a therapy for men. He then quickly left the realm of traditional medical practice.

At the beginning of the 20th century, manufacturers were selling vibrators as ordinary household appliances. The merits of electricity in the home were not as obvious then as they are today: electricity was dangerous and expensive, but it promised excitement and modernity. Electrical products, like sewing and washing machines, have become the hallmark of the rising middle class.

Vibrators were another brilliant new technology, used to sell consumers the prospect of modern electric life. Just as banks gave out free toasters for opening checking accounts in the 1960s, in the 1940s the Rural Electrification Administration handed out free vibrators to encourage farmers to electrify their homes. These modern electrical devices were not considered sex toys.

Vibrant Snake Oil

What may come as a surprise to 21st century readers, these devices promised relief from a non-sexual variety. Users of all ages vibrated just about every part of the body, with no sexual intent.

A 1913 advertisement for the White Cross electric vibrator in the New-York Tribune.
Wikimedia Commons

Vibrators made household chores easier by soothing the pains of tired housewives, calming the cries of sick children, and invigorating the bodies of modern workers. They were applied to tired backs and sore feet, but also to the throat, to treat laryngitis; the nose, to relieve sinus pressure; and all the rest. The vibration promised to calm the stomachs of babies with colic and stimulate hair growth in bald men. It was even believed to help heal broken bones.

A 1910 advertisement in the New York Tribune stated that “Vibrations banish disease as the sun banishes mist.” In 1912, Hamilton Beach’s “New-Life” vibrator came with a 300-page instructional guide titled “Health and How to Get It,” offering a cure for everything from obesity to appendicitis. going through tuberculosis and dizziness.

As these ads suggest, vibrators weren’t standard medical treatments, but medical quackery, alternative medicine that broke its promises. Yet electrical remedies sold by the millions.

The classic form of medical quackery in the US market was patent medicine – essentially useless concoctions made mostly of alcohol and morphine, sometimes containing downright harmful ingredients like lead and arsenic. After the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, the federal government began to regulate the sale of patented drugs.

Vibrators and other electrotherapies were not covered by the new law, so they took market share from older medical preparations. The White Cross Vibrator replaced Ms. Winslow’s soothing syrup as a popular home remedy rejected by the medical establishment.

In 1915, the Journal of the American Medical Association wrote that “the vibrator trade is an illusion and a trap. If that has any effect, it’s psychology. The case was dangerous not because it was obscene, but because it was bad medicine. The potential, recognized by doctors, to use the vibrator for masturbation was just further proof of his quackery.

The Shelton vibrator motor head with various accessories, manufactured by General Electric in the early 20th century.
Science & Society Picture Library / SSPL via Getty Images

A cure for masturbatory disease

Sex toy specialist Hallie Lieberman points out that almost every early 20th century vibrator company offered phallic accessories that “would have been considered obscene if sold as dildos.” Presented rather as rectal or vaginal dilators, these devices were supposed to cure hemorrhoids, constipation, vaginitis, cervicitis and other diseases localized to the genitals and the anus. Hamilton Beach, for example, offered a “special rectal applicator” for “an additional cost of $ 1.50” and recommended its use in the treatment of “impotence”, “piles-hemorrhoids” and “diseases. rectals ”.

The two most prominent scholars in vibrator history, Rachel Maines and Hallie Lieberman, argue that vibrators have always been secretly sexual, but I disagree. Vibrators were popular medical devices. One of the vibrator’s many medical uses was to cure diseases related to sexual dysfunction. And that use was a selling point, not a secret, in an age of anti-masturbatory rhetoric.

Special vibrator tips like the rectal applicator offered dubious treatments for dubious diseases: remedies for ailments allegedly caused by “ruinous and widespread masturbation”.

Masturbation was believed to cause illnesses like impotence in men and hysteria in women. Masturbatory disease was a fairly common idea at the start of the 20th century. One of its surviving formulations is the idea that masturbation will make you blind.

There is no way to really know how people used vibrators. But evidence suggests they meant medical treatment, not culpable masturbation, regardless of use. Even though the users were doing physical actions that people today consider to be masturbation, they did not understand themselves to be masturbating, and therefore they did not masturbate.

In 1980, vibrators had been renamed in the public imagination.
Barbara Alper / Photo Archive via Getty Images

Rethinking the history of the vibrator

For most of the 20th century, vibrators remained a harmless quackery. Good Housekeeping even gave its label to some models in the 1950s. When the sexual revolution hit America in the 1960s, vibrators were largely forgotten and obsolete devices.

In the 1970s, radical feminists transformed the vibrator from a relic of bygone domesticity into a tool for female sexual liberation. In Betty Dodson’s bodysex workshops, the electric vibrations changed “feelings of guilt about masturbation into feelings of celebration, so that masturbation became an act of self-love.” She and her sisters embraced vibrators as a political technology capable of converting frigid anorgasmic housewives into powerful sexual beings capable of both having multiple orgasms and destroying patriarchy.

This masturbatory revolt erased the declining reputation of the vibrator as a remedy for masturbatory diseases and replaced it with a specific, powerful, public and lasting link between the vibrator and female masturbatory practice.

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