The Victorians were a pretty resourceful bunch – postage stamps flushing public toilets, telephones and the world’s first underground railway were all inventions of Victorian Britain. However there is another side to them; Victorian values is a byword for repressive sexual mores. If ever we want to feel superior about ourselves, we can always have a good laugh at the expense of those prudish Victorians. We all know that they used to cover table legs because they suggested human anatomy. Therefore it was quite a surprise to discover that the prim Victorians invented the electric vibrator. Regular readers of my blog may have noticed my unhealthy obsession with sex toys. I have already posted about the notorious 17th century libertine John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester and his classic poem, Signior Dildo. Then I did a piece on sex robots. This week I will be looking at vibrators and their rather unlikely history. If you want to know about the history of vibrators, then the leading authority is Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm. She is my kind of historian. Don’t get me wrong – I am interested in traditional history. But I do like this kind of quirky, offbeat stuff.Maines, first got into this subject while she was researching the history of needlework. Perusing a 1906 needlepoint magazine, she was shocked to see an advertisement for a vibrator. When she realized this was virgin territory for academics she decided to write a scholarly history of the device.
How did the Victorian end up inventing the vibrator? Victorian England was awash with hysterical women. They were seen as naturally frail and at the mercy of their reproductive systems. In 1859 one physician claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. This was a good old-fashioned health scare. I need to stop here and explain the meaning and origins of the word hysteria. There are two standard definitions:
1. Behaviour exhibiting excessive or uncontrollable emotion, such as fear or panic.
2. A mental disorder characterized by emotional excitability and sometimes by amnesia or a physical deficit, such as paralysis, or a sensory deficit, without an organic cause.
Its etymology is fascinating. For more than two millennia of European history until the late nineteenth century hysteria referred to a medical condition thought to be confined to women and caused by disturbances of the uterus. Thus the words hysterical and hysterectomy have a common etymological origin, the Greek word for uterus.
Hippocrates the father of western medicine, believed that there were women whose uteri had become too light and dry from not enough sexual intercourse. As a result the uterus would wander upward, compressing the heart, lungs, and diaphragm. These travels could have different consequences depending on where the roving uterus chose to lodge itself. But if the nomadic organ ultimately ended up next to the brain, it would cause hysteria. According to the 2nd century anatomist Galen, hysteria was caused by the retention of female semen, which could get into the blood and corrupt it. The normal treatment in these days, and in the Middle Ages and renaissance too, was a pelvic massage.
So we come to Victorian England. Such was the demand for the treatment doctors just couldn’t cope. It appears that male doctors did not really enjoy providing pelvic massage treatment. A very time-consuming task, it could take them up to an hour to bring the treatment to a satisfactory conclusion. Many of the doctors found themselves suffering from fatigued wrists and hands.Mainesalso claims that most of them did not even realise that the climax of the treatment they were offering was an orgasm.
These struggling doctors were about to get a helping hand. The inventor would be a doctor himself, Joseph Mortimer Granville. His electromechanical vibrator was thus invented as a labour saving device. “The Manipulator”, a steam-powered vibrator, had been invented in 1869 by another doctor, the American George Taylor. It does sound rather cumbersome – the patient-interface component was about the size of a dining room table and the steam engine that provided the power was located in a separate room from the patient. On the other hand, Dr. Granville’s electromechanical vibrator was portable, although it had a wet cell battery that weighed about 18 kilos. Nevertheless, these early vibrators reduced the time it took to achieve paroxysm in female patients to around five minutes. Now that’s what I call a game-changer. There was a massive buzz in London and female patients were queuing up to be treated by Doctor Granville.
But this was the start of the process. This is the genius of capitalism. With gradual incremental improvements what once took up a whole room became more compact, easier to use, cheaper and available to more and more people. I can see certain parallels with the development of computers. From the late 1800s to the 1920s a revolution took place as the vibrator migrated out of the doctors’ surgeries and into homes. Of course doctors opposed this move, but fortunately they were unable to stem the tide. The vibrator was in fact the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle, and toaster. But it came some ten years before the vacuum cleaner and the electric iron. The home versions soon became extremely popular and appeared in magazines and catalogues. They were advertised as benefiting health, beauty and general wellbeing. In fact in 1909 Good Housekeeping magazine road tested a number of vibrators giving them a glowing report. By 1917 there were more vibrators in American homes than toasters.
The appearance of vibrators in 1920s blue movies blew away the device’s social camouflage. Their sexual connotations could no longer be ignored and vibrators went underground for a few decades. It was the sexual revolution of the 1960s that brought them back to the fore. Women wanted to take their pleasure into their own hands. In 1968 Jon H. Tavel obtained a patent for the “Cordless Electric Vibrator for Use on the Human Body” and the modern personal vibrator was born. Since the 1980s, vibrators have become more visible in mainstream public culture. Sex and the City captured the turn-of-the century zeitgeist. Research in America in 2009 indicated that about 53% of women and about 46% of men in the United States between the ages 18 to 60 had used a vibrator. Unless you happen to live in Alabama,Georgia and Texas, where state legislatures have banned their sale, vibrators are now widely available. The ban in these states reflects the morality of some conservative Christians who believe that the use of vibrators is immoral and prohibited by the Bible. Dan Ireland, a Baptist preacher, has been an outspoken critic who has sought to ban them on religious and ethical grounds. According to Ireland there is just no moral way to use them:
“Sometimes you have to protect the public against themselves….These devices should be outlawed because they are conducive to promiscuity, because they promote loose morals and because they entice improper and potentially deadly behaviours”
A landmark ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008 overturned the Texas ban and the legal provisions in George are rather vague. To all intents and purposes Alabama is now the onlyU.S.jurisdiction where such toys are illegal. Alabamans who sell sex toys, even in an adult context, face up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine. Repeat offenders risk ten years in jail.
We have come full circle. We started off with Victorian values and we have finished talking about Alabama, a state that wants to go back to that kind of morality. Anyway, I think the image of the strait-laced Victorians is too much of a caricature. Be that as it may, we do live in a very different world. Pornography has gone mainstream. While I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to Victorian morality, perhaps now everything is too in your face. However, I do want to salute Joseph Mortimer Granville, a great Victorian, whose invention has brought pleasure to millions.