It starts hysterically with “womb furie”. Hippocrates thought the womb wasn't a fixed item but wandered about the body looking for trouble. At the moment of orgasm, it gripped the windpipe causing the breathless panting so familiar to watchers of When Harry Met Sally. From earliest times there was a recognised women's complaint characterised by nervousness, fluid retention, insomnia and lack of appetite. Hippocrates thought that a blockage in the womb was the cause of it, hence it was called hysteria from the Greek for womb (hysteros). Galen, a Greek physician, claimed it was caused by sexual deprivation, particularly in passionate women, and was noted in nuns, virgins, widows and occasionally in married women whose husbands were not up to the job.
Massage to “paroxysm” was the ticket. “Arising from the touch of the genital organs required by the treatment, there follows twitchings accompanied at the same time by pain and pleasure...from that time she is free of all the evil she felt,” proclaimed Galen.
The trouble was that doctors regarded this treatment as numbingly tedious. Bringing a woman to paroxysm by hand could, understandably, take for ever. It was a job that required stamina and not a little patience. And, significantly, because it took so long, it wasn't lucrative enough for doctors who needed to see many patients to achieve a reasonable income.
And masturbation (by either sex) was regarded as wrong. It was not only a moral affront but something that was thought of as constitutionally dangerous, enfeebling mind and body. “Women [with hysteria] should not resort to rubbing,” said Avicenna, the Muslim scholar and founder of early modern medicine. It was, he advised, “a man's job, suitable only for husbands and doctors”
Vibrador de los 1930':
A vibrating sphere did the business
By the late 19th century spas had introduced water treatments to do the job more efficiently. A scary French pelvic douche from about 1860 involved what looks like a high-pressure fire hose, trained on the clitoris. It claimed to induce paroxysm in less than four minutes. If marriage wasn't delivering the goods, rickety trains, rocking chairs or horse riding were advised for nervous women as gynaecological Dyno-Rodding techniques. But if the 2.20 from Tooting failed to oblige, there was no option but recourse to a medical man. Given that many in the medical profession thought that as much as 75 per cent of the female population were “hysterical” and that it was a chronic disease which could be relieved but not cured, there was a pressing need for cheaper, less cumbersome devices. By the mid-1870s, steam power had been explored. “The Manipulator” was a table with a cut-out area for the woman's pelvis. A vibrating sphere driven by a steam engine then did the business. But like the hydrotherapies, it was not suitable for the doctor's treatment room. It was a niche market poised for exploitation.
The first British vibrator was manufactured by Weiss in the early 1880s and it had several interchangeable “vibratodes”. It was battery-driven, but as electrification swept the world, devices rapidly appeared that were powered by street current. They delivered vibrations at the rate of 1,000-7,000 pulses a minute. There was every sort of variation: portable, floor-standing and, oh joy, the wondrous Carpenter vibrator which hung from the ceiling, looking like a device familiar to those who visit Kwik Fit to have their tyres changed.
These devices were operated by doctors, which medicalised the process and made it entirely proper. But more importantly, the medical paradigm for millennia had been that women's sexual pleasure involves penetration. A bit of rubbing by a doctor was perfectly acceptable because it didn't involve putting anything in the vagina. In fact, there was far fiercer controversy when the speculum (a metal device that is put into the vagina to allow a clear view of the neck of the womb) was introduced. The other point that is often raised is why, if paroxysm was the sovereign cure for hysteria, women were not taught how to masturbate and cure themselves.
In the early 20th century, everything in the garden was rosy until electrification made vibrators available in the home. They were, incidentally, electrified ten years before either the washing machine or Hoover. The first home machines were awesomely large, with a big box attached to the mains. One imagines that they were also awesomely noisy. But then they were miniaturised (relatively speaking). Hand-cranked versions became available, which presumably must have been distressingly prone to running out of power long before satisfaction had been achieved.
With names like Dr Macaura's Blood Circulator or the fabulously titled Veedee Vibrator, these were common devices. The Science Museum has many. “People never expect that the Science Museum has over 40 examples of vibrators,” says Katie Maggs, its assistant curator of medicine. Indeed. The product leaflets of these machines claimed they cured not just hysteria but also deafness, polio and impotence. No doubt dropped arches, halitosis and dandruff were in there somewhere, too. These machines were advertised everywhere. Good Housekeeping ran a “tried and tested” on vibrators in 1909, claiming they brought a glow to the face.
From medicine to high street accessory
Once this “treatment” had escaped from the medical arena and was available for home use, doctors stopped using it. Moreover, although vibrators were still widely advertised before the First World War, the advent of silent films, some of which portrayed them being used sexually, discredited them. Vibrators then disappeared from view completely for the best part of 50 years, although they continued to be offered, labelled as “neck massagers” in catalogues.
By the 1980s, shops such as Ann Summers were offering devices in lurid flesh tones. They were largely designed for penetration and bought by men in back streets. How things have changed. Now the devices are smaller, all colours, largely designed for clitoral use and bought by women on the high street.
But look at the latest Ann Summers device, the iGasm. Its various ‘tickler' attachments make it look startlingly similar to something illustrated in the Army & Navy catalogue of 1905.
There is nothing new in the world.
Click here to see a slide show.
Slate offers a tour of the vibrator's evolution. Since its introduction in the 1880s, the device has, by the most conservative estimates, mechanically induced billions of orgasms. Yet it springs from surprisingly chaste and medical beginnings. Click here for a slide show about the history of artificial stimulation for women.NOTA BENE:
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