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The museum (and the history) of antique vibrators

If the South Korean sex park wasn’t enough for you, your friendly Ayzad travel agency can suggest another destination essential to any kinky-cultural vacation. The Antique vibrators museum is waiting in San Francisco, annexed to the legendary Good vibrationspeciality shop.

The exhibition is much more interesting than you could expect: no matter how entertaining it was, the movie Hysteria actually told just a small – and very fictionalized – part of these neglected devices’ story, which is quite confusing in the first place. In fact, if you researched the history of vibrators you’d come up with at least four different and contradicting “official” chronologies, and not even the great The technology of orgasm book has the final say about it.
Of course I couldn’t leave such a question unsolved, so after extensive studying I think I can offer you the truth about the most popular sex toy in the world.



‘Massage to paroxysm’ as a therapy against the many indefinite symptoms of hysteria makes its first appearance in a 1653 medical text, which also suggested to let midwives take care of it in order to avoid scandals. Starting from the eighteenth century, spas offered an effective alternative in the form of special tubs featuring well-aimed water jets, and we had to wait until 1869 to see the first “dry” device.
That would be George Taylor’s Manipulator, a sort of massage bed including vibrating elements… powered by a coal-fueled steam engine requiring a stoker. What you can see in the only picture I could find is a pedal-powered variant.

Vibrator ad

The electric vibrator is a creation of Joseph Mortimer Granville, the protagonist of the Maggie Gyllenhaal movie, and it dates back to 1883. The prudish doctor maintained until death that his instrument was only meant for massaging aching muscles, starting a long tradition of preposterous advertisements depicting these items as face and neck massagers.
The vibrators seen in Hysteria – which were loaned from the collection of the Californian museum – are however much later models. This mostly depends on the fact that Granville’s creation was actually a machinery so heavy and dangerous (due to its acid-filled battery and its uninsulated wires) that medical practices generally preferred to use standing contraptions like the Chattanooga. It literally cost as much as a small house, stood five feet tall and it was so energetic to require a counterbalances system to avoid it to topple over when in use.

Chattanooga vibrator


The story of the next improvement is a bit vague, but it would seem that it was a woman to invent a “miniaturized” electric vibrator. Mrs. Kellina Wilkinson’s idea was an immediate hit, so much that you can watch this kind of vibrators in use in the first short pornographic films made in the early 900s. Actresses seem to appreciate them immensely; the moral majority however thought differently, since those films caused such a tremendous scandal that any kind of vibrating device just disappeared from the map. No respectable business wanted to be associated with pornography: not the appliances shops, nor medics, who quickly hid their equivocal machines in their attics.

Things changed again in the Fifties thanks to three new developments: the availability of smaller and more reliable batteries; the diffusion of safe and cheap plastics, and most of all the 1952 removal of ‘hysteria’ from medical references. After thousands of years of hypocrisy and prejudices, the “revolutionary” concept of a female sexuality independent from mere procreation needs finally began to gain ground – complete of desires, frustrations, conflicts and the possibility of masturbate in peace, without improbable clinical implications. The rest, as they say, is history.

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