GET TO KNOW YOUR VIBRATOR: IT’S HISTORY WITH HYSTERIA

A demonstration of one of the first the vibrators, taken from it’s manual.

The beginnings of vibrators were not invented for the reason you probably thought they were for. The history of vibrators all starts with hysteria.

Dating back to 500 B.C., Hippocrates were the first to use the term hysteria to describe the movement of the uterus in the body. They believed that the uterus traveled throughout the body when it was deprived of sex. The word “hysteria” was coined from the Greek word for uterus – “hystera.” Throughout time, hysteria was considered a medical condition that gave women mild depression, anxiety, fatigue, and many other symptoms.

According to Babeland’s Vintage Vibrator Museum, hysteria was officially treated by a “pelvic massage” or “hydriatic massage” from the doctor himself. The treatment caused the women to reach “hysterical paroxysm,” which is what we recognize today as an orgasm. In modern times, we understand that clitoral stimulation is sexual, but it was not considered part of sexual intercourse in the past. Therefore, the condition of hysteria and it’s treatment were both considered non-sexual, and was only understood as an ailment that had a prescribed treatment, like a fever or cold.

Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating hysteria in a patient at the Salpetriere. Lithograph after P.A.A. Brouillet, 1887.

According to the book, The Technology of Orgasm by Dr. Rachel Maines, hysteria was a popular diagnosis around the time the vibrator was invented. Many doctors of the time believed that there was a hysteria epidemic. Although, plenty of doctors were using hysteria to diagnose conditions they did not have another diagnosis for. Dr. Russel Trall, a hydrotherapist in the United States, stated that 75 percent of women suffered from hysteria even though he had no hard evidence to prove this statistic.

It was not until the 1880’s that the vibrator was invented by Dr. J Mortimer Granville. As a doctor who treated hysteria, Granville experienced hand pain and fatigue since he treated multiple patients per day. It was then that he was motivated to create a device that could essentially do the work for him. Yes, the vibrator was made by a man as a labor saver device. Hollywood made a film based on Dr. Granville called Hysteria, which highlights what hysteria was like in the Victorian Era.

After gaining popularity from the doctor’s office, the vibrator was then available for purchase in stores. They were marketed as items that improved your health and not seen as something for pleasure. In the 1920s, a vibrator was featured in a stag-film, which were the first pornographic films of the time. It was then that these machines were considered taboo and sexual. Suddenly, vibrators started disappearing from shelves and popular publications. They were then marketed as “multi-purpose” massagers for scalp or muscle tension.

An antique vibrator in Dolly’s House Museum in Ketchikan, Alaska.

It was not until the 60s and 70s that sexual empowerment movement that vibrators made a comeback. Betty Dodson, renowned sex educator and author, helped initiate the re-found popularity of vibrators, which was then recognized for masturbation and not hysteria. In 1980, hysteria was officially removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders, which made it unrecognized as a medical disorder by modern medicine.

Society became more accepting of sexuality, which came along with more sex shops, sex toys, and of course, vibrators. Eventually, the vibrator became what it is today: an item of pleasure.

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