Hysteria is a term that was first coined by Hippocrates and described a medical condition peculiar to women; he considered it to be a symptom of irregular blood-movement from the uterus to the brain. The idea lasted through most of history, and in 1653 appears the first text that shows that the doctors of the era were using clitoral stimulation as a remedy for the nebulous ailment. Because of the limited technology of the time, this therapy had to be conducted by hand ... er, uh ... manually ... A-HEM! ... you get the point ... anyway, this could be quite tiring for the doctors and midwives. The goal of treatment was for the patient to reach “paroxysm” which could take up to an hour to attain, but once reached would/should/could relieve hysterical symptoms for a while.
Hey, I didn’t know either.
When a treatment takes an hour of manual stimulation, of course doctors are going to try to find a gadget or device to make things easier. The 1800s ushered in an era of experimentation, with physicians using contraptions made from rocking chairs and swings and such to spare them the physical effort. But these met with limited success until the last third of the century. In 1870 a wind-up device with an unbalanced drive shaft came available, however, it had the tendency to “run down” before the treatment was complete, and lead to frenetic winding. A couple years after that a steam powered version was patented, but came with a warning that the procedure should still be observed by a medical practitioner lest “over-stimulation” occur. (Where are all these quotation marks coming from?) And only a few short years after that an electro-mechanical model became available. By the turn of that century medical articles and textbooks on “vibratory massage technique” praised the machines for treating all sorts of problems in either sex, and saving physicians untold time and labor! With the help of these unbalanced drive shafts one could “get there” in ten minutes rather than the possible hour. They proved to be a great time saver, but the downside of these contraptions was that they were room-sized, bulky apparatuses not meant to venture from a doctor’s office and watchful eye. Usually the motor stood the size of a modern industrial mixer and was affixed with an array of menacing wires and belts, and were bolted to the floor next to a bench–a cushioned bench if you were lucky.
In the 1920s the medical profession realized that they weren’t really helping hysteria with their treatments, and divorced themselves from the vibrator to seek a more meaningful relationship with prescription drugs... and with that a medical treatment that had been around almost 300 years dipped into obscurity. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that once-medical implement would reemerge, this time marketed as a sex-aid.
It’s hard to imagine the hot-pink, plastic gizmos that stare at me from the pages of discount catalogs hail such a noble history as a tool of medicine that assuaged so many cases of hysteria through the centuries. Maybe it’s just another example of our fast-food society taking a good thing and smutting it up for fun.