Editor's Note: Some of this information may be outdated or incorrect. Please see the update at the end of the article.
They’re really just a simple casing with an unbalanced drive shaft and a motor, but for such an unassuming device, the vibrator has some tremendous taboos associated with it. Most of these prejudices hinge on packaging and purpose— the vibrator in a pager is the same basic device as its stimulating and lurid cousin, but suffers no stigma. But perhaps our society has its taboos misplaced— after all, the pager uses its mechanical oscillations for the questionable purpose of distracting drivers on high-speed motorways, whereas the “vibrator” was originally designed for a noble medical purpose: the treatment of hysteria.
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.
Paroxysm: noun 1) a fit, attack, or sudden increase or recurrence of symptoms (as of a disease) : CONVULSION e.g. a paroxysm of coughing 2) a sudden violent emotion or action : OUTBURST e.g. a paroxysm of rage.
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.
Finally, in 1905, the first portable model was made available. For a brief time the medical industry maintained a shaky monopoly on the gadgets, but inevitably they lost control. Soon enough these devices were being sold to the public at large! Usually they appeared in housekeeping, sewing, and ladies’ journals with innocuous pictures of an old woman mechanically massaging her temples with a statement akin to: “all the pleasures of youth will throb within you.” Heck, in 1918 Sears & Roebuck got in on the action; they took a fairly common household motor that affixed to attachments that helped churn, mix, buff, and fan, and included a vibrating attachment too.
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.
Update 06 September 2018: Historians are beginning to cast doubt on historical claims regarding the use of vibrators to treat hysteria. Claims about this practice may be exaggerated or altogether false. Time will hopefully tell.