Good vibrations

While looking through the Journal of the American Medical Association, I found this fascinating and glowing review of Rachel Maines’ book ‘The Technology of Orgasm’ that uncovers the history of how vibrators were originally popularised created to cure ‘hysteria’ in women as a Victorian medical treatment.

Hysteria has had many medical meanings through the millenia, but at the time Maines was writing about, it was a catch-all anxiety-related diagnosis usually applied to women.

While perusing turn-of-the-century magazines such as Modern Priscilla and Woman’s Home Companion, Maines was surprised to find any number of advertisements for electric vibrators. As early as 1899, she writes, machines that closely resemble modern sexual aids were marketed to women as health-promoting, antiaging devices. “All the pleasures of youth will throb within you,” proclaimed one such advertisement for White Cross vibrators in 1913. Was this early vibrator, which predated the invention of the vacuum cleaner and electric iron by a decade, merely a sexual toy sold under the guise of a medical device?

Not so, according to Maines, who describes how the vibrator was invented in the 1880s as a medical appliance. In a scrupulously researched chapter‚Äîone of the best in her book‚ÄîMaines provides a unique and fascinating history of hysteria, ending with Freud’s revision of the diagnosis in the early 1900s. Maines shows that hysteria is described in medical texts as early as 2000 BC in Egypt. Although physicians throughout history disagreed about the exact symptoms of hysteria, “anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, erotic fantasy, sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, lower pelvic edema, and vaginal lubrication” were said to be among its many manifestations.

Believing hysteria to be caused by sexual frustration, physicians proposed that the uterus became engorged with “seed” and wandered upward inside the body until it threatened to choke its host. Treatments for hysteria, described as early as the fifth century, include stimulating the vagina and labia of the afflicted patient in order to induce a “hysterical paroxysm.” This “crisis,” during which a patient might thrust her pelvis suggestively, utter cries of pleasure, and briefly appear to lose consciousness, was thought to return the uterus to its rightful place. Maines goes on to say that treatment for hysteria was protracted, with patients typically seen weekly for an indefinite period.

Probably for those cases of treatment resistant hysteria I would imagine.

Slate has a NSFW slideshow tracking the early history of the vibrator with photos of some of these original adverts and ‘medical aids’. Although, it’s NSFW, it’s not really that erotic I’m afraid. Sorry about that.

The review is from 1999 and it turns out that the book won two prestigious academic history awards after publication.

Sadly the JAMA book review is closed-access and behind a pay wall. Don’t the American Medical Association know information is like love? It’s better when it’s free.

Link to JAMA book review, closeted behind a pay wall.
Link to Slate slideshow on the history of the vibrator.
Link to more info on Rachel Maines’ book.

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