Vibrator History

In the History of Gynecology, a Surprising Chapter

By NATALIE ANGIER

      Electricity has given so much comfort to womankind, such surcease to her life of drudgery. It gave her the vacuum cleaner, the pop-up toaster and the automatic ice dispenser.

      And perhaps above all, it gave her the vibrator. In the annals of Victorian medicine, a time of "Goetze's device for producing dimples" and "Merrell's strengthening cordial, liver invigorator and purifier of the blood," the debut of the electromechanical vibrator in the early 1880s was one medical event that truly worked wonders -- safely, reliably, repeatedly.

      As historian Rachel Maines describes in her exhaustively researched if decidedly offbeat work, "The Technology of Orgasm: 'Hysteria,' the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction" (Johns Hopkins Press, 1999), the vibrator was developed to perfect and automate a function that doctors had long performed for their female patients: the relief of physical, emotional and sexual tension through external pelvic massage, culminating in orgasm.

      For doctors, the routine had usually been tedious, with about as much erotic content as a Kenneth Starr document. "Most of them did it because they felt it was their duty," Dr. Maines said in an interview. "It wasn't sexual at all."
      The vibrator, she argues, made that job easy, quick and clean. With a vibrator in the office, a doctor could complete in seconds or minutes what had taken up to an hour through manual means. With a vibrator, a female patient suffering from any number of symptoms labeled "hysterical" or "neurasthenic" could be given relief -- or at least be pleased enough to guarantee her habitual patronage.
      "I'm sure the women felt much better afterwards, slept better, smiled more," said Dr. Maines. Besides, she added, hysteria, as it was traditionally defined, was an incurable, chronic disease. "The patient had to go to the doctor regularly," Dr. Maines said. "She didn't die. She was a cash cow."

      Nowadays, it is hard to fathom doctors giving their patients what Dr. Maines calls regular "vulvular" massage, either manually or electromechanically. But the 1899 edition of the Merck Manual, a reference guide for physicians, lists massage as a treatment for hysteria (as well as sulfuric acid for nymphomania). And in a 1903 commentary on treatments for hysterical patients, Dr. Samuel Howard Monell wrote that "pelvic massage (in gynecology) has its brilliant advocates and they report wonderful results."
      But he noted that many doctors had difficulty treating patients "with their own fingers," and hailed the vibrator as a godsend: "Special applicators (motor driven) give practical value and office convenience to what otherwise is impractical."
      Small wonder that by the turn of the 20th century, about 20 years after Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first electromechanical vibrator, there were at least two dozen models available to the medical profession. There were musical vibrators, counterweighted vibrators, vibratory forks, undulating wire coils called vibratiles, vibrators that hung from the ceiling, vibrators attached to tables, floor models on rollers and portable devices that fit in the palm of the hand.
      They were powered by electric current, battery, foot pedal, water turbine, gas engine or air pressure, and they shimmied at speeds ranging from 1,000 to 7,000 pulses per minute. They were priced to move, ranging from a low of $15 to what Dr. Maines calls the "Cadillac of vibrators," the Chattanooga, which cost $200 plus freight charges in 1904 and which, in its aggressive multi-cantilevered design, is more evocative of the Tower of London than the Pink Pussycat boutique.

      Doctors used vibrators for many non-orgasmic purposes, including to treat constipation, arthritis, muscle fatigue, inflammation laryngitis and tumors; and men as well as women were the recipients of vibratory physic. But that a big selling point for the devices was their particular usefulness in treating "female ailments" can be gleaned from catalog copy and medical textbooks at the time.
      A text from 1883 called "Health For Women" recommended the new vibrators for treating "pelvic hyperemia," or congestion of the genitalia. Vibrators were also marketed directly to women, as home appliances. In fact, the vibrator was only the fifth household device to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle and toaster, and preceding by about a decade the vacuum cleaner and electric iron -- perhaps, Dr. Maines suggests, "reflecting consumer priorities." Advertised in such respectable periodicals as Needlecraft, Woman's Home Companion, Modern Priscilla and the Sears, Roebuck catalog, vibrators were pitched as "aids that every woman appreciates," with the delicious promise that "all the pleasures of youth ... will throb within you."
      Significantly, the vibrators and their accoutrements almost never took the form of the dildo, for the simple reason that vibrators were meant to be used externally. As a result, medically indicated massage therapy could be pitched as upstanding and asexual -- and less risque than the gynecologist's speculum, which came under heavy ethical fire when it was first introduced in the late 19th century.

      Dr. Maines, head of Maines and Associates, a firm that offers cataloging and research services to museums and archives, first stumbled on her piquant subject while researching a paper on the history of needlework. Thumbing through a 1906 needlepoint magazine, she found, to her astonishment, an advertisement for a vibrator. When she realized there was no scholarly history of the vibrator and related "technologies of orgasm," she decided to research the topic, consulting libraries around this country and abroad.
      Her investigations led her to conclude that doctors became the keepers of the female orgasm for several related reasons. To begin with, women have been presumed since Hippocrates' day, if not earlier, to suffer from some sort of "womb furie" -- the word "hysteria," after all, derives from uterus. The result was thought to be a spectacular assortment of symptoms, including lassitude, irritability, depression, confusion, palpitations of the heart, headaches, forgetfulness, insomnia, muscle spasms, stomach upsets, writing cramps, ticklishness and weepiness. Who better to treat the wayward female than a physician, and where better to address his ministrations than toward the general area of her rebellious female parts?

      Dr. Maines also proposes that women historically have suffered from a lack of sexual satisfaction -- that they needed somebody's help to have the orgasms they were not having in the bedroom. By the tenets of what she calls the "androcentric" model of sex, women were supposed to be satisfied by the motions of heterosexual intercourse -- the missionary position and its close proxies.
      Yet as many studies have shown, at least two-thirds of women fail to reach orgasm through coitus alone, Dr. Maines said. As a result, she said, many women historically may have spent their lives in an orgasm deficit, without necessarily identifying it as such. At the same time, religious edicts against masturbation discouraged women from self-exploration. "In effect," she writes, "doctors inherited the task of producing orgasm in women because it was a job nobody else wanted."

      The vibrator was not the first therapeutic approach to treating feminine "pelvic hyperemia." Dr. Maines and other historians have described the practice of hydrotherapy, the taking to the baths or spas, as an ancient means to a sometimes climactic end. A century ago, spas like Saratoga Springs were a favorite destination of the well-to-do, who enjoyed the diversity of aqua-regimens: the warm baths, the bracing baths, the mineral baths, the gas-infused bubbly baths, the swirling proto-Jacuzzi baths, and, especially, the "douche" baths, in which a current of water was directed through a high-pressure hose or nozzle against the surface of the body -- or into a cavity of the body, if the bather so desired.

      A young woman named Abigail May, who traveled to Ballston Springs, N.Y., in 1800, seeking relief from the pain of her cancer, found happiness, if not a cure, in the water treatments, Dr. Maines writes, using information from a journal she found during her research. At first nervous at the sight of the douche hoses, May made sure to "have laudanum handy" and then took the plunge. "I screamed merrily -- so says Mama," May wrote in her journal. "For my own part I do not remember much about it -- I felt finely for two hours after bathing" and was "so much pleased with the Bath" that she went again not long afterwards.

      The vibrator remained a staple of the doctor's armamentarium and the proper wife's boudoir until the 1920s, Dr. Maines said, when it began showing up in stag films and quickly lost its patina of gentility.

      Vibrators are still widely available, of course -- unless you happen to live in Alabama, Georgia and Texas, where state legislatures have banned the sale of vibrators and other "sex toys." The American Civil Liberties Union is now vigorously challenging the Alabama statute. If Alabama permits the prescribing of the anti-impotence drug Viagra, the ACLU argues, how dare it tell women that they can't have their own electromechanical prescription for joy?

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