Victorians: Hysteria and the Vibrator, Part Two: The Vibrator

In Part One of this blog miniseries, we learned how Victorian doctors defined “hysteria” and how they treated it. Spoiler alert: doctors used various methods of stimulation to bring women to achieve the “hysterical paroxysm”, i.e., an orgasm.

Around 1879, the electric or electro-mechanical vibrator was introduced into doctors’ tools of the trade for treating hysteria. Vibrators were first used in France, then this method spread to the rest of the European continent, England, and America.

But what did the Victorian vibrator look like? One perhaps imagines corseted women cowering as a mustachioed doctor approaches with some bizarre Steampunkish contraption…

What did the vibrator look like?

In The Pleasure Device, secondary heroine Lavinia, Lady Foxley-Graham, gets an up-close-and-personal look at Dr. Christopher’s device:

Lavinia studied the contraption with wonder. A small wooden peg was screwed at a ninety-degree angle to a brass baton, which looked to be the housing for a machine. It sat on a tray attached to a cart, a flexible cloth hose leading down to a motor on a lower shelf.

“Ah, you are admiring my latest acquisition? It turns on down here at the motor,” explained Julius. “Electricity goes through the hose to the wand,” he picked it up, “which contains a small engine and causes the end to vibrate.” He pointed to a tray in the middle of the cart. “As you can see, there are various shapes which can be affixed to the end.”

Lavinia glanced at the rubber attachments. One, to her utter astonishment, perfectly resembled a penis. She gasped.

I only sort of made all that up.

When I saw the play In The Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in February 2009, there was a display of historic vibrators, most from the early twentieth century. I frantically took photos, trying not to be too conspicuous amongst the well-heeled theater goers. Which is my way of saying, my photos are not too great, but they get the visual point across.

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Reynold’s Electric Cable-Operated Vibrator, c. 1880-1906. The connector from the cable to the motor and wooden base were refurbished around 1965.

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Left to right in both photos:
Shelton Junior Vibrator, electric, c. 1905
Vibro-Life Vibrator, hand crank-operated, c. 1908 by The Eureka Vibrator Company (which I believe is the same company that makes vacuum cleaners)
– Wood encased, hand crank-operated vibrator, believed to be manufactured in Japan in the late 19th or early 20th century
Macura’s Blood Circulator, hand crank-operated, c. 1880-1900. Features unique front-to-back plunging motion of the center disc, combined with a rotating eccentric weight.

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Top shelf, left to right:
Physician’s Vibra-genitant, c. 1905, in velvet-lined box
– various attachments (cup, ball, and button)
La Vida Vibrator, early 20th century
Lower shelf, left to right:
White Cross vibrator, c. 1920s
Hamilton Beach Vibrator Type A, c. 1902

Victorian Vibrators: Further Visual Resources

There are at least two museums dedicated to antique vibrators.

Mike’s Antique Vibrator and Quack Medical Museum is a virtual museum with lots of photos (better than mine). He has some curated collections: Electric, Hand Crank, Air Powered, and Battery Powered.

The Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum is an actual place in San Francisco. You can even take a tour with a docent! Good Vibrations’ historical vibrators were featured in the 2011 movie Hysteria.

Victorian Vibrators: Final Thoughts

Proscription against masturbation. Sexual frustration diagnosed as hysteria. The only solution, a visit to the doctor’s office.

The female orgasm has come a long way, baby.

1 thought on “Victorians: Hysteria and the Vibrator, Part Two: The Vibrator

  1. Pingback: Victorians: Hysteria and the Vibrator, Part One: Hysteria - Regina Kammer

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