The Strange, Surprising History Of The Vibrator

Published January 26, 2016
Updated December 8, 2017

The Modern Vibrator

Using Vibrators To Treat Female Hysteria

The “hysteria” epidemic. Image Source: Wikipedia

In a 2012 interview with The Daily Beast, sex historian Dr. Rachel Maines said that by 1899, $5 battery-powered vibrators appeared in Sears catalogs as household appliances, adding that, “After a while, patients realized that if they could order one from Sears for $5, why should they go to the doctor for $2 to $3 a visit?”

By the early 20th century, women had the ability to treat their “hysteria” independently and at home, eliminating the need for office visits and saving the wrists of their grumbling doctors. The advertisements in Sears catalogs at the time called vibrators “aids that every woman appreciates.”

Once vibrators became widely available, the scope of their intended use broadened.

In the early 1920s, they started popping up in brothels and later, porn films. By 1952, the the American Medical Association dropped the term “hysteria” from its diagnostic terminology. The term may have exited the lexicon, but the attitude toward women’s health and the suppression of their sexual needs continued: Once it was apparent that vibrators had an explicitly sexual connotation, they disappeared from the consumer market almost as quickly as they’d appeared.

The 1970s sexual revolution ushered in a more open approach to the vibrator, most notably with the famous Hitachi Magic Wand, which hit the scene in 1973. The concept of objects created specifically for sexual use — particularly women’s sexual pleasure — succeeded through the evolving perception of women socially and politically. Even though sex toys had existed for centuries, they had mostly been used in secret. Now they were coming to the forefront, so to speak.

Hitachi Wand

A Hitachi “magic wand.” Image Source: Wikipedia

Today, vibrators exist in just about every iteration you could possibly imagine, varying in shape, size, color and intensity. Babeland, one of the first websites devoted to their sale (in 1993), continues to be one of the most prolific sellers of sex toys to date.

One study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that over half of women they surveyed had used a vibrator — and hearkening back to its medical origins, linked the usage of sex toys to health-conscious behaviors such as regular gynecological exams.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England, currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Medium, Seventeen, Romper, Bustle, and Quartz.
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