The Lady And The Gadget

08 Sep

I just learned a fascinating fact which is definitely worthy of a blog post, or of a whole film. And luckily, there is actually such a film.

In Victorian Britain, ladies were sent to doctors suffering from “hysteria” – chronic anxiety, irritability and abdominal heaviness. (I’m quoting as well as borrowing from this article in the Guardian). A very common treatment was for the doctor to administer a “pelvic massage”, performed manually with the fingers, until the patient reached a “hysterical paroxysm”. The doctors found this boring and so put their Victorian minds to the task of inventing a range of machines to do the job for them. And in the 1880s the first electromechanical vibrator was created, years before the electric vacuum cleaner or even the electric iron.

It became a huge hit and was advertised freely with ads like this one, from a 1906 issue of Woman’s Own magazine:

“It can be applied more rapidly, uniformly and deeply than by hand and for as long a period as may be desired.”

The vibrator remained in doctor’s offices (and the doctors were rather busy) until the 1920s when it became obvious what was going on. The vibrator went underground, then emerged again in the 60s. But, as the article points out, even in the 60s:

“… only 1% of women had ever used one. This was perhaps unsurprising, given that most vibrators by then were modelled on a very male notion of what a woman would want – a supersized phallus – replicating, in other words, the very anatomy whose shortcomings had precipitated the invention in the first place”

This is brilliant stuff. The most interesting things being that:

  1. The past is full of unexpected surprises.
  2. The past is very rude.
  3. The Victorians were nuts.

What a filthy and excellent world.

/ paddy


Posted by on September 8, 2012 in Culture, Obscura


Tags: , ,

6 responses to “The Lady And The Gadget

  1. blitzken

    September 8, 2012 at 10:15 am

    I stumbled across the film Hysteria by accident, a wonderful accident! Proof yet again that I was born at the wrong time. I could have been a world famous doctor!
    The whole subject and the implications both physically and psychologically are fascinating.

  2. Malin

    September 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    I find it priceless that the first electric household appliance was the vibrator!

  3. Martin R

    September 8, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    There’s this mail-order catalogue called Hobbex. We used to read it when I was a kid, looking at novelty items and cool hunting knives (Rambo). And then there was a picture of a smiling lady holding a white dildo to her cheek, with the legend “Massage rod. Simple and natural shape. It’s vibrations generate a pleasant feeling. May be used anywhere on the body.”

  4. Martin R

    September 8, 2012 at 8:40 pm


  5. Mint

    September 8, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    One might have thought that they used it even more during the roaring and decadent twenties.

  6. V.L. Craven

    October 23, 2012 at 1:54 am

    Victorian vibrators and concenpt of female hysterical paroxysm also appear in The Road to Wellville, a much underrated film about the health craze of the 1920s.


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