Angier, Natalie. "In the History of Gynecology, A Surprising Chapter," New York Times, 23
February 1999, p. F5.
Electricity has given so much comfort to womankind, such surcease to her life of drudgery. It
gave her the vacuum cleaner, the pop-up toaster and the ice dispenser.
And perhaps above all, it gave her the vibrator. In the annals of Victorian medicine, a time of
"Goetze's device for producing dimples" and "Merrell's strengthening cordial, liver invigorator
and purifier of the blood," the debut of the electromechanical vibrator in the early 1880s was one
medical event that truly worked wonders - safely reliably, repeatedly.
As historian Rachel P. Maines describes in her exhaustively researched if decidedly off-beat
work, "The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria,'the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction"
(Johns Hopkins Press, 1999), the vibrator was developed to perfect and automate a function that
doctors had long performed for women: the relief of physical, emotional and sexual tension
through external pelvic massage, culminating in orgasm.
For doctors, the routine had about as much erotic content as a Kenneth Starr document. "Most of
them did it because they felt it was their duty," Dr. Maines said in an interview. "It wasn't sexual
The vibrator, she argues, made that job easy, quick and clean. With a vibrator in the office, a
doctor could ameliorate in minutes any number of symptoms labeled "hysterical" or
"neurasthenic" - and guarantee habitual patronage.
"I'm sure the women felt much better afterwards, slept better, smiled more," Dr. Maines said.
Besides, she added, hysteria was considered an incurable disease. "The patient had to go to the
doctor regularly," Dr. Maines said. "She didn't die. She was a cash cow."
Nowadays, it is hard to fathom doctors giving their patients what Dr. Maines calls regular
"vulvular" massage, either manually or electromechanically. But the 1899 edition of the Merck
Manual, a reference guide for physicians, lists massage as a treatment for hysteria (as well as
sulfuric acid for nymphomania). And in a 1903 commentary on treatments for hysterical patients,
Dr. Samuel Howard Monell wrote that ``pelvic massage (in gynecology) has its brilliant
advocates and they report wonderful results."
But he noted that many doctors had difficulty treating patients "with their own fingers," and
hailed the vibrator as a godsend: "Special applicators (motor driven) give practical value and
office convenience to what otherwise is impractical."
Small wonder that by the turn of the 20th century, about 20 years after Dr. Joseph Mortimer
Granville patented the first electromechanical vibrator, there were at least two dozen models
available to the medical profession. There were musical vibrators, counterweighted vibrators,
vibratory forks, undulating wire coils called vibratiles, vibrators that hung from the ceiling,
vibrators attached to tables, floor models on rollers and portable devices that fit in the palm of the
They were powered by electric current, battery, foot pedal, water turbine, gas engine or air
pressure, and they shimmied at speeds ranging from 1,000 to 7,000 pulses per minute. They were
priced to move, ranging from a low of $15 to what Dr. Maines calls the "Cadillac of vibrators,"
the Chattanooga, which cost $200 plus freight charges in 1904 and which, in its aggressive
multi-cantilevered design, is more evocative of the Tower of London than the Pink Pussycat
Doctors used vibrators for many nonorgasmic purposes, including to treat constipation, arthritis,
muscle fatigue, inflammation laryngitis and tumors; men as well as women were the recipients of
vibratory physic. But that a big selling point for the devices was their usefulness in treating
female distress can be gleaned from catalogue copy and medical textbooks at the time, which
spoke of the vibrator's particular effectiveness against "pelvic hyperemia," or congestion of the
Vibrators were also marketed to women, as home appliances. In fact, the vibrator was only the
fifth household device to be electrified, after the sewing machine, faith. and toaster, and
preceding by about a decade the vacuum cleaner and electric iron - perhaps, Dr. Maines suggests,
"reflecting consumer priorities."
Advertised in such respectable periodicals as Needlecraft, Woman's Home Companion Modern
Priscilla and the Sears, Roebuck catalogue, vibrators were pitched as "aids that every woman
appreciates," with the delicious promise that "all the pleasures of youth ... will throb within you."
Significantly, the vibrators were almost always designed to be used externally. As a result,
medically indicated nonage therapy could be pitched as upstanding and asexual - and less risque
than the gynecologist's speculum, which came under heavy ethical fire when it was first
introduced in the late 19th century.
Dr. Maines, head of Maines and Associates, a firm that offers cataloguing and research services
to museums and archives, first stumbled on her piquant subject while researching the history of
needlework. Thumbing through a 1906 needlepoint magazine, she found, to her astonishment, an
advertisement for a vibrator. When she realized there was no scholarly history of the device, she
decided to take on the topic.
Her investigations led her to conclude that doctors became the keepers of the female orgasm for
several related reasons. To begin with, women have been presumed since Hippocrates' day, if not
earlier, to suffer from some sort of "womb furie" - the word "hysteria," after all, derives from
uterus. The result was thought to be a spectacular assortment of symptoms, including lassitude,
irritability, depression, confusion, palpitations of the heart, headaches, forgetfulness, insomnia,
muscle spasms, stomach upsets, writing cramps, ticklishness and weediness.
Who better to treat the wayward female plaint than a physician, and where better to address his
ministrations than toward the general area of her rebellious female parts?
Do. Maines also proposes that women have historically suffered from a lack of sexual
satisfaction. By the tenets of what she calls the "androcentric" model of sex, women were
supposed to be satisfied by the motions of heterosexual intercourse - the missionary position and
its close proxies.
Yet as many studies have shown, about twothirds of women fail to reach orgasm through coitus
alone, Dr. Maines said. As a result, she said, many women may have spent their lives in an
orgasm deficit, without necessarily identifying it as such. At the same time, religious edicts
against masturbation discouraged women from self-exploration. "In effect," she writes, "doctors
inherited the task of producing orgasm in women because it was a job nobody else wanted."
The vibrator was not the first therapeutic approach to treating feminine "pelvic hyperemia." Dr.
Maines and other historians have described the practice of hydrotherapy, the taking to the baths
or spas, as an ancient means to a sometimes climactic end. A century ago, spas like Saratoga
Springs were a favorite destination of the well-to-do, who en joyed the diversity of
aqua-regimens: the warm baths, thee bracing baths, the mineral baths, the gas-infused bubbly
baths, the swirling proto-Jacuzzi baths.
A young woman named Abigail May, who traveled to Ballston Springs, N.Y., in 1800 to seek
relief from the pain of her cancer, found happiness, if not a cure, in the water treatments, Dr.
Maines writes, using information from a journal she found during her research. At first nervous
at the sight of the douche hoses, Miss May made sure to "have laudanum handy" and then took
the plunge. "l screamed merrily - so says Mama," Miss May wrote in her journal. "For my own
part I do not remember much about it - I felt finely for two hours after bathing" and was "so
much pleased with the Bath" that she went: again not long afterwards.
The vibrator remained a staple of the doctor's armamentarium and the proper wife's boudoir
until the 1920s, Dr. Maines said, when it began showing up in stag films and quickly lost its
patina of gentility.
Vibrators are still widely available, of course - unless you happen to live in Alabama, Georgia
and Texas, where state legislatures have banned the sale of vibrators and, other "sex toys." The
American Civil Liberties Union is now vigorously challenging the Alabama statute. If Alabama
permits the prescribing of the anti-impotence drug Viagra, the A.C.L.U. argues, how dare it tell
women that they can't have their own electromechanical prescription for joy?