I’ll admit that the trek to 1620 Polk Street is not an easy one, especially via public transportation. However, the two bus + BART combination that landed me at the doors of the Nob Hill sex store in San Francisco was a small price to pay for the joy that awaited me behind those glass doors. Situated in the back of a regular Good Vibrations chain store, the Antique Vibrator Museum is small but mighty gem, full of vibrators from the 1800s and on.
Started as a collection by Joani Blank, founder of Good Vibes, the assembly of vibrators ranges from gigantic, mechanical monstrosities that greatly resemble car parts, to smaller, lighter designs that call to mind efficient kitchen appliances. Once available only through doctors, the vibrator only became accessible to the public in the early 20th century, thus necessitating the need for easy transportation. These lighter devices were often made from Bakelite and celluloid, and were designed in increasingly brighter colors to emphasize their positive effects on “health and beauty”.
Though the styles, effectiveness, and transportability vary for each model shown, every piece had one similar aesthetic component: they all looked nothing like the sleek, swooping, aerodynamic, water-resistant/proof toys we all know and love today. Ranging from metal to glass to everything in between, the shape and design of the models displayed in the museum are effective at demonstrating the complex medical stigma around women’s pleasure during the Victorian age and beyond.
My favorite poster in the museum is an ornate one: an advertisement for door-to-door vibrator salesmen, the poster headlines “Dr. Smith, A Wonderful Healer, STATES HERE IS HEALTH! Through the Magic Power of Gentle Massage! Cures Ailments and Diseases of the Mid-Quarters From Neck to Knee!”
A man in a coat with tails is kneeling in front of a dress-bedecked woman, his right arm up her skirt. She looks off to the distance, arms crossed casually. Their body language is professional, yet intimate. The fine print glorifies the value of privacy: in the seclusion of your own home, a medical professional will come and rock your world with an ornate pre-Hitachi vibrating contraption that is guaranteed to buzz you right out of all that is ailing you. From my research, the primary ailment women complained about (and hence were cured of) was the disease of hysteria: uncontrollable emotional frenzy, jarring inappropriate feelings, and inexcusable demonstrations of histrionic need.
What is interesting to me (besides the fact that men could procure jobs where they pleasure women with giant medical vibrators) is that hysteria appeared to be an exclusively female problem. In bygone eras (before passionate disclosures, couples’ counseling, and lesbian processing) outwardly expressing emotions showed a weakness of character, and was thusly treated as a component of mental illness. The museum website says this: “Physicians employed vibrating devices in the treatment of "hysteria," which they viewed as the most common health complaint among women of the day. Hysteria was a medical term developed to describe a woman's display of mental or emotional distress, behavior then considered a disease in need of treatment.
Though the existence of hysteria as a disease was debunked by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952, medical experts from the time of Hippocrates up to the 20th century believed that hysteria expressed the womb's revolt against sexual deprivation. We are talking about a time when women regularly fainted from distress, characters in literary showpieces were eschewing romance and feeling like the plague, and Edgar Allen Poe could be killed by something as wimpy as a broken heart*. Self-denial was the name of the game in this epoch of stuffy closets and private, “at-home” doctors’ visits. It comes as no surprise, given the historical context of the times, that overt emotional weakness was attributed to femininity/feminine sensibilities, and that men (the only gender allowed to rise to medical ranks) served as the arbiters of good health.
What is even more interesting about this age of repression is the fascinating space that orgasms occupy; by creating a line of devices that would stimulate women into having orgasms, and thus “cure” them of their pesky emotions, the medical industry implies that women’s pleasure is not a priority in normative relationships, and that regular orgasms have health benefits beyond the research available. By medicalizing said orgasms and sanctioning them as something to seek outwardly by a therapeutic professional, pleasure is taken out of the hands of women who seek it and is instead used as another way to control, tax, and colonize. Far from being a surprise—women’s bodies have been capitalized and pioneered since the beginning of time—, the fact of this stigmatized reality is a harsh one, and put a dark cloud over my entire museum experience.
As vibrators began to become more and more readily available to consumers and less industrially aesculapian, the notion that orgasms were exclusively used for treatment began to fade. More and more advertisements announced the devices as useful for pleasure and recreation, and women became involved in design and research: “Created by a woman who knows what a woman needs” (an advertisement that particularly thrilled me as I thought about all of the ways in which said woman might have done her investigating). By the 70s, (the most recent vibrators the museum have are ones from the 1960s-70s, including the Relax-o-cizer, which famously made an appearance in Peggy Olson’s advertising cue in the “Indian Summer” episode of Mad Men), vibrators had taken a more practical and recreational function.
Ditching the old notion of vibrating for mental health, these toys were now advertised as valuable health, beauty, and weight-loss tools that would increase circulation, help a custom shed unwanted weight (side note:I am not, in any way, condoning dieting, weight loss, or fatphobia), and promote a healthy complexion. “The vibrator was later marketed as a home appliance in women's magazines and mail order catalogs. Ads proffering "health, vigor and beauty" promoted the vibrator as a health aid. By the 1920s, doctors had abandoned hands-on physical treatments for hysteria in favor of psychotherapeutic techniques. But vibrators continued to have an active commercial life in which they were marketed (much like snake oil) as cure-alls for ills ranging from headaches and asthma to "fading beauty" and even tuberculosis!” Though standards of beauty are another, separate form of oppression, at least the crux of the later waves of advertisement were centered around pleasure.
The Antique Vibrator Museum, though small and working within the confines of San Franciscan high rent prices, does a wonderful job of providing a survey of historic vibrators from the 1800s-1970s, along with glimpses into the contexts and cultures of the times. Featured in such movies and documentaries as Hysteria, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, and “Passion and Power: The Technology of the Orgasm”, the museum is making the press as not only an informative epicenter of information about how and why orgasms have been stigmatized for the last few centuries, but also as erotic tourist destinations. A great place to spend an afternoon alone, with a group of friends, or on a date, the Antique Vibrator Museum is worth exploring.
*Broken hearts are a legitimate cause of death. I’m just being callous to prove a point.