The vibrator: A girl’s ‘bed friend’

by Ana P. Santos

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, USA – From generation to generation, there has probably been no other sex toy that so captured a woman’s ahem, heart, and occupied such a prime space in her bedside table than the vibrator.

The girls from “Sex and the City” knew it (Charlotte York practically made the Rabbit Vibrator a household name and in one episode, Samantha Jones gave an informal review of vibrators that she had personally tried and tested) apparently; our great grandmothers did, too.

A vibrator is a good thing to have in your nightstand, to have on hand as a trusty bed friend.

Feeling the vibe

Women started feeling the need for a good vibe as early as 1899. During this time, vibrator ads were found in needlepoint magazines, much to the shock of Rachel P Maines, a scholar who made the discovery. (She was researching on a different topic).

Maines’ later research led her to discover that the vibrator was invented a full decade earlier than the flat iron, the vacuum cleaner and the electric frying pan.

Is it a coincidence that all these household items were meant to make life just a wee bit easier for women? Or as Maines posits in her study, “The Technology of Orgasms: Hysteria, The Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction,” was it indicative of consumer priorities at the time?

Dr Carol Queen, resident sexologist of the Good Vibrations sex shop on Polk Street, San Francisco, thinks it was a little of that, as well as “Just ignorance of women’s sexual health and what they needed to function as healthy people.”

Queen is also curator of the Antique Vibrator Museum inside Good Vibrations. Here, early models of vibrators dating back to the early 19th century are on display.

It would take the world a while to recognize women’s need for sexual satisfaction – even with the availability of vibrators.

For one thing they were not positioned as sex toys, but as a gadget to treat hysteria, which was then known as a medical condition.

While taking a personally guided tour of the museum in the Good Vibrations store along Polk Street in San Francisco, Queen explains, “Early vibrators were used to treat hysteria, which is derived from the Greek word which means ‘womb.’ People thought a woman’s womb was coming detached wandering outside of her body, causing mayhem and affecting her mood.”

“Hysteria was then treated with manual massage of the vulva which could be done by a physician or a mid-wife. It was then cause of hysterical proxisms, I call that an orgasm when it happens to me.”

That hysteria was noted to occur more in single women and widows indicated that the condition was somehow sexually related.

A post in the Antique Vibrator Museum reads: “In the late 19th century, as many as three quarters of the adult female population was considered ‘out of health’ suffering from hysteria, which was one of the most frequently diagnosed diseases in history until the Psychiatric Association removed it from the canon of modern disease paradigms in 1952.”

Vibrating household items

Vibrators of the early days nowhere resembled the vibrators of today.

They were bulky, heavy hand-held devices (not battery operated as we know them today) and looked anything but phallic or sexually enticing. They looked clunky, and quite monstrous, and were not meant for vaginal penetration, but vulva/clitoral massage and stimulation.

That they were made to resemble household items was a matter of design, discretion and manufacturer; early vibrators were made by household appliance makers like Hitachi and Hamilton Beach.

Today, Queen says that the Hitachi Vibrator-Massager, is one of the best sellers in the Good Vibrations shop.

Lifting of sexual camouflage

The 1920s was the period when the sexual camouflage was lifted on vibrators.

“Vibrators were seen in blue films, in porno and that let the cat out of the bag,” says Queen.

It also led to the revolution and evolution of the vibrator in terms of design. Vibrators began to take on an art deco design and feel, became smaller and more portable and convenient to carry around.

Battery-powered vibrators allowed getting a buzz anywhere possible and packaging deviated from medical, clinical boxes to colorful, vibrant ones brandishing pleasure and promising satisfaction at your fingertips. In the Good Vibes Sex Shop, you can find just about any vibrator you want — from phallic contours to discreet cylinders and pocket rockets.

Interestingly enough, Queen also says that the store was able to put together enough vibrators to create a museum exhibit due to donations from store patrons who saw the clunky items in their grandmother’s closet and finally figured out what they really were.

As our great grandmothers might have known — diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but vibrators are best kept in the bedside….just in case. –

This was also published here.

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