For the sexually unfulfilled woman these days, there are a wide variety of solutions. If re-runs of The Bachelor aren’t cutting it, a plethora of sex toys are available for purchase—most notably the vibrator. These autoerotic tools have become so commonplace that they’ve been openly discussed on daytime talk shows like The View and sold in online religious sex-toy shops. Even Kate Middleton was reportedly spotted purchasing one while she was being courted by her future Prince Charming.
Back in the late 19th century, however, women didn’t have this luxury. Worse, Victorian-era women who experienced everything from the loss of sexual appetite to neurasthenia—fatigue, anxiety, mild depression—were diagnosed with “female hysteria,” and often prescribed a manual “pelvic massage” meant to cause “hysterical paroxysm” in the patient (translation: orgasm) to cure said maladies. The film Hysteria, making its world premiere at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, tells the story of the vibrator’s invention.
The usage of “pelvic massage” to combat “female hysteria,” a diagnosis largely debunked in the early 20th century and no longer recognized today, dates all the way back to Hippocrates in 450 B.C., according to Dr. Rachel Maines, a famed sex historian and author of the seminal 1999 book The Technology of Orgasm. It persisted through the Middle Ages but really seemed to explode during the last quarter of the 19th century, when doctors believed there was an epidemic of hysteria. Dr. Russell Trall, a hydrotherapist in the United States, believed that up to 75 percent of women suffered from “female hysteria,” despite having no way of measuring this statistic.
While “hydriatic massage,” achieving paroxysm through spraying water, was used as early as the mid-1700s in U.S. and U.K. bathhouses, manual “pelvic massage” became an enormously popular medical procedure to combat female hysteria during the Victorian era.
“There was no recognition, except by the French physician Raymond Tripier and the 17th century physician Nathaniel Highmore, that there was anything sexual about this ‘paroxism’ at all. More in terms of producing a crisis of the disease, just like the breaking of a fever, and it was simply your duty as a doctor.”
And achieving “hysterical paroxysm” in female patients was a very time-consuming task, with doctors of the era claiming it was incredibly difficult to learn and would take up to an hour manually.
While the electromechanical vibrator was invented by Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville in sometime in the late 1800s, a steam-powered vibrator, called “The Manipulator,” was invented in 1869 by American physician George Taylor. According to Dr. Maines, the patient-interface component was about the size of a dining room table, and had a cutout area for a vibrating sphere. And the steam engine that powered the reciprocating motion of the sphere was located in a separate room from the patient.
“Doctors didn’t like it because you couldn’t move it and take it with you on a house call, and they also didn’t enjoy shoveling coal into it,” says Dr. Maines, with a laugh.
Dr. Granville’s electromechanical vibrator was portable but had a wet cell battery that weighed about 40 pounds, in addition to the vibrator itself and the Vibratodes. Still, these early vibrators reduced the time it took to achieve “paroxysm” in female patients from an hour to around five minutes.