Good Vibrations?

Lets Talk About Sex (part seven)

In the dark ages everyone thought the world was made of just four elements; air, fire, water and earth but in the 16th century an alchemist called Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (try saying that when drunk) was the first to challenge that idea and suggest everything was composed of elements. Then in 1667  Johann Joachim Becher postulated the existence of a fire-like element called “phlogiston”. We know now that phlogiston doesn’t exist but it was a red herring that held back (al)chemistry until Victorian times. The Victorians at last came to realise that phlogiston didn’t exist and probably thought themselves very clever but they didn’t have it all their own way. You see, woman in the Victorian era woman used to suffer from ‘hysteria’, a catch-all condition for just about anything and everything but the condition itself didn’t actually exist. I suspect ‘hysteria’ held back the advancement of sex in the Victorian age in much the same way that phlogiston held back the advancement of chemistry.

However, and this is obviously where the story caught my eye, the treatment ermmm.. handed out by doctors at the time involved pelvic massage, and copious amounts of it until the poor lady achieved ‘hysterical paroxysm’ ie orgasm. I kid you not. I am deeply jealous of the bright spark that thought up that particular treatment and to think the doctors got paid for it, surely to god woman had orgasms even in the Victorian ages but apparently not.

Not only did the doctors of the time regard “vulvular stimulation” as having nothing to do with sex (the mind boggles at that particular one, what did they teach them in Medical School?) but reportedly found it time-consuming, hard work and wearisome. They complained about the effort required to get a woman to the point of ‘hysterical paroxysm’ and how tiring it was on their wrists and fingers – any of this sound familiar? This does make me wonder a lot of things, principally how the Victorians actually managed to reproduce if they were that sexually naive, I’m starting to wonder did they actually figure out the connection between the act of making love and pregnancy..

However, it must have made for some interesting conversations around the Victorian version of the water-cooler.. “Blast it Caruthers, I had to treat Miss Brontë this morning for hysteria. I spent the whole morning caressing, stroking, rubbing and manipulating her good self in ‘vulvular stimulation’ whilst she read me passages from her latest novel, Jayne Eyre. Listening to it I was assailed by sensations of perpetual giddiness and ever-recurring faintness. Between thou and I, Caruthers, I fear it will not be popular, it was a dreadfully melancholy story of love lost but I must be thankful that the many layers of her dress over my head muffled most of the tale whilst I continued my valiant efforts to stimulate her, something she was clearly not doing to me with her tedious book. It does seem to me that she suffers from hysteria a bit too much, almost a daily occurrence and she was most disappointed that Dr. Richard Chamberlain was not able to avail himself on her. Personally I think those needlecraft afternoons are having a detrimental effect on her whole constitution and I shall advise her to refrain from it forthwith and engage in an activity more becoming of a young lady, such as mountaineering or bog swimming. One would think we could get some street urchin to do this work and free me up to do something more useful like waxing my moustache or attending to my stamp collection. I can’t say I’m looking forward to treating her two sisters this afternoon, blast this hysteria for being so infectious!”

So, seeing an opening (cough) and a way to make a quick buck, American physician George Taylor developed a steam-powered device called the “Manipulator” much to the hand relief of the doctors who found all this massage a bit wearing. (I probably should apologise for the three puns in that last sentence)(but won’t). The steam powered Manipulator was very cumbersome to use and not that popular, so around 1880, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first electromechanical vibrator and 20 years later the American company Hamilton Beach patented the first electric vibrator available for retail sale. This made the vibrator the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle, and toaster, and about a decade before the vacuum cleaner and electric iron. Thus, after ones strenuous treatment, one could have a refreshing cup of tea, a toasted muffin and be cooled down by a nice fan. Beats a cigarette, doesn’t it. Good to see we got our priorities right.

What’s a real eye opener is that home versions soon became extremely popular, with advertisements in periodicals such as Needlecraft, Woman’s Home Companion, Modern Priscilla, and the Sears, Roebuck catalogue from 1902 until 1920 – see illustration above.  I suppose it was only a spooky co-incidence that sales stagnated when World War One stopped and the men came back home.

However, during the sixties sexual revolution Jon H. Tavel applied for a patent for the “Cordless Electric Vibrator for Use on the Human Body”, ushering in the modern personal vibrator. The patent application referenced an earlier patent dating back to 1938, for a flashlight with a shape that left little doubt as to a possible alternate use. The cordless vibrator was patented on March 28, 1968. No-one knows how many vibrators have been sold, without doubt many millions but it is still illegal to buy them in India and as of 2009, Alabama is the only state where a law prohibits their sale, though ironically – considering their history – Alabama residents are permitted to buy them with a doctor’s note, perhaps the doctors in Alabama are a tad limp wristed.