Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Female Hysteria and Creepy Old-Timey Vibrators

Are you exhibiting any of the following symptoms:
--Trouble sleeping?
--Fluid retention?
--"A tendency to cause trouble"?
Yes, yes, yes and oh yes?

Let's see, according to my medical book, circa 1895, you have a clear-cut case of Female Hysteria. (Men with similar symptoms will need to diagnose themselves with some other old-timey disease. May I suggest "dairy fever" or perhaps "dropsy"?)

In the 19th century, as many as 75% of middle-class women were estimated to suffer from hysteria, but luckily medical science was there to help them. Doctors treated hysteria with "pelvic massage" until the patient reached "hysterical paroxysm." In modern times, we know "pelvic massage" to be "the doctor jerking off his patient" and "hysterical paroxysm" to be "orgasm." The procedure as a whole is now known as "grounds for a lawsuit."

Doctors of the day were happy to provide such a treatment, as it provided a steady stream of paying customers (patients were advised to come in weekly for their treatments). It was all good, except for one thing, doctors found the actual manipulation of their patients genitals to be tedious and tiring. According to the highly entertaining Wikipedia entry on Female Hysteria:  "The technique was difficult for a physician to master and could take hours to achieve 'hysterical paroxysm.'" (The physicians' widespread befuddlement at mastering these basic lady-pleasing skills puts Marrying a Doctor much lower on the To-Do list.)

The doctors were saved from the arduous task of trying to make these damn women come, already, by the magic device, the vibrator. The first of these "massage and vibratory apparatus" was patented by American physician (USA! USA!) George Taylor and was--and I can scarcely stand to type this--steam-powered. (The resulting billowing smoke making this perhaps the least discreet form of masturbatory tool.) Soon, physicians' offices were outfitted with electric vibrators, allowing doctors to get the job done in a matter of minutes instead of hours, and allowing most of mankind to stay blissfully ignorant about female orgasm until about the 1960s.

By the early 1900s, these miraculous health-giving electric vibrators started showing up in the American women's home. In fact, vibrators were one of the earliest electric home appliances invented, showing up ten years earlier than the vacuum cleaner or iron. Regular old, non-pervy companies like Hamilton Beach and Sears Roebuck were in the lucrative business of selling vibrators to housewives. The photo at left, for example, is from the 1918 Sears Roebuck and Co. catalog. "Very useful and satisfactory for home service," it says, vaguely, hoping you get the idea.

Vibes were openly marketed in catalogs and women's magazines. The ads weren't directly saying, "Put this on your wang" but they did refer to its "wonderfully refreshing" effect. Read one ad: "Can be used by yourself in the privacy of dressing room or boudoir, and furnish every woman with the essence of perpetual youth." The home vibe was a thrifty purchase, too. With doctors charging $2 to jack you off, the $5.95 portable home vibrator would pay for itself after only three uses.

According to this one dude, Mike, who collects antique vibrators, there were also air-powered and hand-cranked vibrators. Here's a photo from Mike's hand-cranked vibrator collection (a collection which I imagine causes some awkward moments on Mike's dates) of the Macaura's Pulsocon Hand Vibrator from the late 1800s.  I don't understand the physics of the device, but Mike explains that there is "a plunging motion of the center disk." To me, it looks like a hand-mixer. And, I know it's supposed to be an erotic device, but I see this and think of the twisting motions of a hand mixer, the voluminous bushes of 1800s-era ladies, and well, I can venture a guess as to why we don't all have Macuara's Pulsocon Hand Vibrators stashed in our nightstand drawers.

If you, like Mike and--apparently, me--are fascinated by these old devices, by all means make haste and check out the online Antique Vibrator Museum they put up at Good Vibrations. There is an educational video, plus photos of all sorts of creepy-ass, early electrical vibes. Like, look at this 1902 Hamilton Beach model, the "Type A":

The Hamilton Beach, Type A, 1902
I mean, Good Lord! The giant motor! The thick cloth covering the cord! And is that an oil can in there? The Type A looks loud--roaringly loud, jackhammer loud. But most importantly, electricity back then was scary. I wouldn't even be brave enough to use a toaster from those days, much less put some shorting-out, spark-shooting, scary new-fangled doodad on my nether regions.  I don't care how "wonderfully refreshing" it's supposed to be.

As all this new information (scary old vibes! hand cranks! hysterical paroxysm!) rattles around in my mind, I find that I keep going back to the 19th century doctor's office and this strangely sexless sex between doctor and patient. Were either of them aroused by what was going on? Did the females see the doctor breaking out his Hamilton Beach 4000 or whatever and feel a thrill of anticipation, or just the kind of dull disinterest one would experience while watching a mechanic change the car's oil? And I wonder about the women's orgasm. If they were not told it was pleasurable, did they experience it as pleasure, or as just a release, akin to finally getting to pee on a long car trip?  And not to be all zen koanish or anything, but is non-erotic sex that is not recognized by either party as sex indeed sex?

(image source: That's really Matisse, not a doctor, btw.)


Unknown said...

I don't know about you, but sometimes peeing on a road trip feels damn near as good as an orgasm.

This post is fascinating. Thank God for whomever invented batteries, though, cuz all that hand-crankin' looks exhausting - and you're right - no old-school electrical device is going down MY pants.

CkretsGalore said...

My Grandma totally has an antique vibrator.

She also has a modern one. Curiosity grossed out the cat they say....

I mean, good for her but that's just not what I want to picture my Grandma doing yaknowwhatI'msaying.

Random Girl said...

Very informative and a little scary indeed. Great post!

Unknown said...

After all those diagnostics, the doctors didn't bother to inform husbands of how easily they can cure "female hysteria" themselves? Oh wait I forgot this is the 19th century. Men don't have to do shit, right? That's kinda sexy though. I can imagine an Eyes Wide Shut Tom Cruise curing my hysteria any day :) (post-katie holmes tom cruise just sucks)

Annah said...

I love this!

You're fabulous for posting this and teaching me something new and fabulous today. Now I kind of feel like buying a new vibrator.

HarleyQ said...

I found this reference in my undergrad in psych as well as my Masters work,--under ethics I believe. If you think this is interesting check out the activities of the first sex therapists *cough*.
Now just how naughty were our ancestors *winks*? I am trying to figure out how this could not be kinda sexy back then, when I love the idea now. "Hi there Doc.... I have a little itch I need taken care of... mind if i take off my clothes?"
Now how yummy would that be?

Enid Wilson said...

OMG, where did you find the info? I'm definitely in hysteria and I don't want any of these to come near me.

My Darcy Mutates

The Barreness said...

"In fact, vibrators were one of the earliest electric home appliances invented, showing up ten years earlier than the vacuum cleaner or iron."

You simply cannot conceive of how much joy that sentence has brought me.

- B x

Ed said...

"I find that I keep going back to the 19th century doctor's office..."

Do you picture Randy Spears as the doctor too, or is that just me?

katsidhe said...

I love this! I had learned about the origin of "hysteria" through an article of words with naughty origins, your post gave *so* much more brilliant information.

I write a Steampunk column for another website, and I'm not sure if the editor will green light it since I'm supposed to "behave" myself there, but I'm totally going to do an article mentioning a steampunk vibrator now. Thank you so much for the inspiration, girlfriend.~


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Anonymous said...

Way happy to be living in the 2000s. Wayyyyy happy.

Anonymous said...

You've probably posted this somewhere before, but how much does it cost you to maintain this blog, if anything? (I'm not really familiar with the way Blogspot works..)

Anyway, you don't post very often but I LOVE your posts. This is the only sex-related blog I've found yet that is neither boring nor distastefully smutty. It's just very interesting and well-written. So thank you for gracing the internet with your fabulous blog. ;D

Jill Hamilton said...

Let's see...
Anonymous, go to and you can push a bunch of buttons and have yourself a blog in a hour or so. it's free which means they are probably mining my words to scientifically discern my interests so as better to sell me products. (she likes creepy vibes! more ads for creepy vibes!)
Haven, I hear you. I "like" my gyno but I don't want "want to have sex" with my gyno.
Katsidhe--well, send me the link once you do it. would love to see.
Ed--I am embarrassed that I had to google randy spears. just another unsavory link in my search history...
B--Well, honesty, are women going to be more happy to receive a vibrator iron?
Enid-- check out the link to the good vibes vibrator museum. scary pix (but interesting!) i sense this is going to be in one of your future books...
Harleigh--sounds fascinating. if you have any suggested points of reference for that, please send them along.
Annah--well, if you do, feel free to buy it through my blog. a kind stranger bought some expensive thing this month and i about peed my pants with joy.
Leila--I know, the levels of people not noticing what was going on, how to do it at home, etc... is quite shocking. speaking of shocking, i'd rather do it with one of those creepy old vibes than tom cruise (cue rim shot)
ugh, it's 2:29, i need to stop writing about vibes and go pick up my kids from school. bye for now.

ali said...

Is there a chance that, because sex was mostly of the "lie back and think of England" nature at that point (i.e. loveless, passionless, and primarily for baby-making; it WAS the Victorian era, after all), that MAYBE people didn't equate sex with female pleasure anyway?

I mean, if sex was a wifely duty meant to fulfill her husband's needs and make babies, there's no way you could truly sort out whether or not she got much out of it. ... other than the occasional pregnancy. AND, as a result, "hysterical paroxysm" might very well be seen as entirely non-sexual, or removed-enough from sex that the average "obedient housewife" wouldn't be able to sort out how to achieve it via the marriage bed.

Robin Wolfe said...

Victorians have an unfair reputation as being sexless and/or frigid. Yes, there were the "lie back and think of England" types, just as there are now; but there were also plenty of people, including many women, who enjoyed sex plenty. The perception that Victorian women were unaware of what was going on in their bloomers is inaccurate. In fact, many women in the Victorian era had what were referred to as "romantic friendships", which were passionate emotional relationships with other women, and they often crossed into being sexual. It was considered perfectly acceptable back then, and nobody (including husbands and families) thought anything of it.

On a semi-related note, if you've never read any Victorian porn, you should; despite the use of ridiculous euphemisms, they often had an explicit frankness that can still be startling today. (If anyone's curious, I run a series called "Victorian Porn Fridays" where I occasionally post excerpts from Victorian-era porn. Here's a link to the series.) It may be somewhat eye-opening to read the descriptions of sex people were writing - and reading, and getting off to - back then. :)

whoresandhookers said...

I got your steampunk cure for female hysteria right here:

Anonymous said...

although i've read several articles on this subject (because, honestly, if you run across one, how can you NOT?) (why have I run across 3 or 4? no idea) (well, yes i do have an idea. whatever.), of course none made me almost pee my pants laughing out loud like a crazy person. thanks again my dear. :) -dr.a.

John Mac said...

Oh, but how I wish I had known you in the primary flush of youth, vigor and desire insatiable. How I would have learned from you.

in bed with married women said...

John Vagabond, that is a lovely thing to say. thank you xoxo

John Cowan said...

Dropsy is by no means an old-timey disease like chlorosis (greensickness, something that women were thought to suffer from when they were virgins for too long), it's just an old-fashioned name for edema, or swelling in the legs (or other parts) due to fluid retention.

Jill Hamilton said...

John, that my friend is a stellar comment.