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Good Vibrations: The Unusual History of the Vibrator

Picture this…

It’s been a long week and you’re feeling a little under the weather: tired, bloated, anxious and irritable. In an attempt to resolve your issue, you decide to take a trip to the doctor’s office. Upon your arrival, the doctor takes one look at your chart and swiftly gives you a diagnosis: Hysteria. Your treatment? A vibrator-induced orgasm.

Yes. You read that right.

Medical professionals have accumulated a litany of bizarre treatments once considered best practices. From snake oil to shock therapy, there’s no shortage of questionable remedies that at some point in history were thought to cure various diseases. In this week’s blog, the Marlow team is taking you on a trip through the past to explore the history of the fan favourite sex toy: the vibrator.

1800s

In the 1800s, a strange disease swept the masses. Female patients were consistently seeking treatment for a wide range of issues: anxiety, irritability, bloating, insomnia and more. This hefty list of symptoms soon became associated with a disease that doctors named Hysteria. Jennifer Wright, author of It Ended Badly: The Worst Breakups in History, explains that the vibrator was originally used to aid doctors in massaging their female patients to relieve them of their symptoms. The purpose of this treatment was to induce what was known as “hysterical paroxysm” - which some historians now suggest was just a fancy way of describing orgasm. While we know that doctors used massage as the primary treatment for hysteria, there isn’t much concrete evidence to support this humorous hypothesis. It is unclear as to whether or not vibrators were indeed used on patient’s vulvas in the doctor’s office; however, these vibrating medical devices were the beginning of the vibrator as we know it.

 

 

Early 1900s

Following the era of hysteria, electric vibrators made their official debut on the public market: Polar Cub and Vibra-King being two of the most popular brands. Both of these devices were marketed to women as “beauty aids”, promising to improve a woman’s appearance and help her preserve her youth. Although these vibrators were not overtly advertised as sex products, they were intended to be used on the woman’s face or anywhere else on the body… wink wink, nudge nudge.

 

 

 

1960s-1970s

Alas, we’ve made it to the liberation era. This means increased access to birth control and sex toys. Of course, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, female masturbation was still considered to be incredibly taboo. However, the good news is that at the very least vibrators were finally becoming more commonplace in consumer markets, even if they weren’t directly being advertised as sex toys just yet. In the midst of this wave of liberation, the world-famous Japanese vibrator – the Hitachi Magic Wand – hit shelves for the very first time.

 

 

1980s-1990s

By the 1980s, vibrators were finally getting the attention they deserved, and women were starting to become more comfortable with exploring the world of self-pleasure. Over the past 10 years, new models of vibrators had been created. Some were smaller and more compact, while others were more complex with fancy features! The Vibratex Rabbit Habit vibrator was a crowd pleaser at this time, with sales skyrocketing after appearing in an episode of Sex and the City

 

 

2000s-Present

After 1990, the sex toy industry’s momentum only continued to grow, and soon enough new vibrator models were popping up left and right. Today, you can find just about any type of vibrator you could imagine: waterproof, remote controlled, rechargeable, Bluetooth enabled and more. Features aside, even the physical appearance of new style vibrators have improved greatly. They’re sleeker and softer than ever before, available in every colour under the sun and some are completely undetectable. The Vesper vibrator necklace for instance, is a 24k pendant and bullet-vibrator all-in-one.

We’ve come a long way over the past 200 years. What once started as an unusual medical treatment has now evolved into a – somewhat – accepted, accessible sex toy. However, while we have made improvements to the normalization of masturbation, by no means have we broken down the stigma completely. In order to be truly sexually liberated, more conversations need to be had – not only about sex toys – but about womxn’s self-pleasure as a whole. 

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