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See Inside September 2009

The Vibrator

One of the first electrical appliances made its way into the home as a purported medical device

For a sex toy, the vibrator’s roots seem amazingly antiseptic and clinical. Prescribed as a cure for the curious disease hysteria, the device for decades found clinical application as a supposed medical therapy.

Derived from the Greek word for “uterus,” hysteria occurred in women with pent-up sexual energy—or so healers and early physicians believed. Nuns, widows and spinsters were particularly susceptible, but by the Victorian era many married women had fallen prey as well. In the late 19th century a pair of prominent physicians estimated that three quarters of American women were at risk.

The prescription of clitoral orgasm as a treatment for hysteria dates to medical texts from the first century A.D. Hysterical women typically turned to doctors, who cured them with their hands by inducing a “paroxysm”—a term that hides what we now know as a sexual climax. But manual stimulation was time-consuming and (for the doctors at least) tedious. In The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, science historian Rachel P. Maines reports that physicians often passed the job off to midwives.

The invention of electricity made the task easier. Joseph Mortimer Granville patented an electromechanical vibrator in the early 1880s to relieve muscle aches, and doctors soon realized it might be used on other parts of the body. That innovation shortened treatment time for hysteria, fattening doctors’ wallets.

Patients were happy, too. The number of health spas offering vibration therapy multiplied, and the service was so popular vibrator manufacturers warned doctors not to overdo it with the modern appliance: if they met relentless patient demand, even mechanical vibration could be tiring. By the turn of the century needlework catalogues advertised models for women who wanted to try the treatment at home, making the vibrator the fifth electric appliance to arrive in the home—after the sewing machine, the fan, the teakettle and the toaster.

The vibrator’s legitimacy as a medical device declined after the 1920s, when Sigmund Freud correctly identified paroxysm as sexual. In 1952 the American Psychiatric Association dropped hysteria from its list of recognized conditions. When the vibrator was again popularized years later, women no longer needed the pretense of illness to justify a purchase.

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