Fucking Hysterical: A Timeline of Vintage Vibrators
Not far from San Francisco’s favorite trans bar in the heart of the historically gay-friendly Polk district you’ll find the Antique Vibrator Museum, a vivid exhibit of vibrators dating from the early 20th century through the 1970s.
The museum opened last year inside a sex-toy store called Good Vibrations, where therapist and educator Joani Blank had been displaying a few old vibrators since she opened the shop in 1977. Gradually, customers started to donate their own, then eBay came along, and 36 years later, her small collection has evolved into the Antique Vibrator Museum—home to more than 120 vintage vibrators, along with packaging materials, manuals, print ads, and other vibrator-related ephemera. It’s the biggest collection of orgasm-inspiring devices open to the public today.
The curator of the museum, Dr. Carol Queen, who we interviewed last year, gives regular tours of the old-timey vibes, which are arranged chronologically inside a dozen glass cases. A lot of her info comes from from Rachel P. Maines’s book, The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. But while Maines’s historical research forms the backbone of the Antique Vibrator Museum, Dr. Queen is the one who fleshes things out.
“It’s one thing to know about vibrators as sex toys, and quite another to see how many types there were throughout the century,” she says. “It’s also a great example of design and industrial changes in one particular household implement.”
The vibrator itself has a long and storied history rooted in female hysteria, a so-called physical illness that disappeared from medical textbooks in 1952. For centuries, though, hysteria was a legitimate and common diagnosis for women who just needed to get laid, or, at the very least, treat themselves to a few mind-blowing orgasms. But since most women in the old-timey days didn’t even know they could have orgasms, they needed someone—or something—to help. Thanks in part to the Antique Vibrator Museum, here’s a timeline chronicling the evolution of vibrators in history.
200 AD: The Genital Massage
Physician and philosopher Galen of Pergamon prescribed “genital massage” to treat hysteria, which comes from the Latin for “womb.” He wrote that the disorder, as it was known then, was caused by a wandering womb or something. “It certainly was thought of as primarily a women’s disease,” says Dr. Queen. “Some commentators talked about it in nearly sexual terms — it affected virgins and widows more than married women, for instance.”
1650-1660: Coming Along
By 1653, Petrus Forestus started fingering his patients with essential oils so they could achieve a “paroxysm,” which British surgeon Nathaniel Highmore soon figured out was really just a fancy word for orgasm. To treat symptoms of hysteria, doctors would massage the vulva and clitoris until the woman had a “hysterical paroxysm of relief.” But according to Dr. Queen, “Very few doctors said in so many words that they were instigating orgasms through these treatments.”