In the last two weeks, two TNB writers have written about masturbation (thank you Smibst and Marni Grossman). Why not make it a threesome? Tis the season, right?

Specifically, I’d like to focus on the vibrator.

I was 29 when I visited my first actual sex toy shop. I went with a couple of girlfriends from my kung fu class to look for Valentine’s Day gifts for our men. Together, we were trouble.

First, there was V, the dark-haired Filipina-American who had spent 8 years in the army and who could arm-wrestle any man stupid enough to challenge her under the table. I have broken up fights between her and overzealous guys at dance clubs on more than one occasion. Second, there was M, the ample-chested knockout who never failed to turn a head with her screaming feminine vibe. She has also been the cause of a few scuffles at dance clubs – but perhaps for less confrontational reasons. Third, there was me, their plump friend, Bess.

So there we were, marching into Ye Old Sex Shoppe on 28th Street (otherwise known as “Fascinations”), and winking boldly at the pre-adults working the counter as if we had just stopped in to get a bag of chips and a vanilla Frappucino out of the refrigerator case.

“Can I help you with anything?” asked a zit-faced attendant somewhat ambiguously.

“Oh, sure,” replied V with a firm nod, “just looking for a sex toy.”

“Do you guys carry those?” joined in M.

“For sex,” I added, late as usual on the scene.

The attendant smiled a crooked “I have just the thing” smile and led us through the store. Past the lotions and games. Past the sticky videos. Not quite to the fake pussies. He stopped at a table filled with a menagerie of items. Aside from the obvious “penis” theme, the collection was comprised of all sorts of dangly, delicate things. Flowers. Fairies. Hearts. Like something I would find under glass at Gramma’s house.

 

“The latest in vibrators,” he said, grabbing one by the shaft and holding it up for our examination. It was pale green and coated in a soft rubber. A hummingbird emerging from a flower was poised in mid-flight, its beak at the ready.

“It’s for your clit,” he explained.

I raised my eyebrows at V and repeated what he’d said very seriously, “It’s for your clit.”

Our personal shopper then proceeded to turn it on for us. Handed it to M like a pair of size 7 black pumps.

“Good God,” she said. “That beak isn’t getting anywhere near my clit.”

She handed it back to him, pinched between two vibrating fingers. He turned it off, visibly hurt. Excused himself to help a customer wearing a black trench over combat boots and bearing multiple facial piercings.

After that, we headed over to the lotion section. Contemplated edible undies. French maid costumes. Chocolate body paint. Didn’t bring the vibrators back up for a good 15 minutes. When the subject finally did come up, it was touched on with a derisive humor. The pale green. The beak. Was that an orchid from which it was emerging or a Black-eyed Susan?

Touchy subject, vibrators. Kind of embarrassing. Got one? Sure. A whole collection. I got them from your mom. Right.

According to one study, however, this has not always been the case. In 1999, Rachel Maines published an eye opening study called “THE TECHNOLOGY OF ORGASM; “HYSTERIA,” THE VIBRATOR, AND WOMEN’S SEXUAL SATISFACTION.”

In a nutshell, for centuries – possibly millennia – women have been assumed to not be able to reach orgasm during normal intercourse. As a matter of fact, women were thought to not be able to reach orgasm at all.

What women were subject to, on the other hand, was a disease called “hysteria.” This disease involved a variety of symptoms, including “excitability, mood swings, insomnia, and restlessness.”

Once diagnosed with hysteria, women were then prescribed a treatment from doctors, which involved genital massage in order to effect a “paroxysm.”

I had to read that part twice when I first came across it, so here it is again. Women went to their family doctors or midwives in order to receive genital massage to help bring them to a paroxysm.

Not an orgasm – women don’t have orgasms – paroxysm.

Women would go into the doctor’s office, hike up their skirts, remove pantaloons, and allow the doctor to rub their clitoris until they cried Mother Mary.

Nuns and unmarried women in particular were encouraged to go for regular treatment. They used aromatic oils. There was no shame attached. It was a medical condition. Many doctors of the day believed that nearly 70% of the female population suffered from this affliction.

Naturally, this epidemic was becoming a bit of a problem. Think about it. The ugly spinster comes in once a week for her paroxysm. She is awfully slow about it. Sometimes it takes the doctor nearly an hour to effect her paroxysm. The doctor is losing time and money. Other tragically afflicted (hotter) patients need his attention. Something needed to be done.

Thus was born the first of the automated vibrators (Cleopatra and her “calabash of bees” doesn’t count). There is evidence that shows that vibrators were used as early as 1860 – run by water or foot pedal.


But when the Chattanooga arrived on the scene, the history of the vibrator would change forever. Here is a lovely description of the device:

The Chattanooga…stood nearly 2m tall and required a couple of men to operate it. Being steam-powered, the engine of the machine was located in a small room and two men shoveled coal into the furnace and monitored the steam temperature, pressure, and thrust required to drive the Chattanooga. The engine room was separated from the doctor’s room by a wall which had a hole in it. A mechanical arm extended from the engine through the wall and into the consulting room where the doctor controlled it and used the vibrating arm to administer the appropriate genital massage to the grateful patient.”


By the turn of the century, the vibrator was battery operated and was the fifth household appliance ever to be electrified.


Toaster? Check! Sewing machine? Check. Vibrator? You better believe it. Electrified before the vacuum; before the iron. The vibrator had even become a popular gift – touted as a great muscle relaxer, of course.

So what happened?

Porn, for one thing. As soon as movie producers realized they could make money by selling sex, it was only a matter of time before the vibrator made its first appearances on the big screen and smuttied up the whole vibrator industry. By the 1920s, a vibrator could scarcely be found on the shelves. It wasn’t until the 1960s when they made a reappearance and were suddenly viewed as a power symbol.

As for the “disease” of hysteria, well, it was finally recognized in 1952 by the American Psychiatric Association for what it really was – sexual frustration and not something pathological.

And as for my little visit to the sex shop, it ended as can be reasonably expected. I became pregnant with my first child. Actually – funny story – so did M. Which leads me to the moral of my little story:

Whether it’s pale green, pink, pocket sized, comes with hanging daisies and emerging hummingbirds – buy the damn vibrator.

 

TAGS: , , , , , , , ,

ERIKA RAE is the author of Devangelical, a humor memoir about growing up Evangelical (Emergency Press, December, 2012). She is editor-in-chief at Scree Magazine and nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. Erika earned her MA in Lit­er­a­ture and Lin­guis­tics from the Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong and to this day can ask where the bath­room is in Can­tonese, although it is likely that she will not under­stand the answer. In her dream world, she fan­cies her­self a kung fu mas­ter clev­erly dis­guised as a gen­tle moun­tain dweller, eagerly antic­i­pat­ing dan­ger at the bot­tom of every latte. When she is not whipping one of her 3 children and denying them bread with their broth, she runs an ISP with her husband from their home in the Colorado Rockies.

8 responses to “Chattanooga Choo-Choo: A Brief History of the Vibrator”

  1. Erika Rae says:

    Original Comment Stream:

    29 Comments »

    Comment by Kimberly M. Wetherell |Edit This
    2008-12-26 08:27:49
    I’ve missed you, Erika.

    This was one of the bestest XXX-mas presents ever.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-26 09:06:40
    Aw, shucks – I was hoping I’d see you on the comments. Y’know, this would make for a great film…

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Kimberly M. Wetherell |Edit This
    2008-12-26 09:52:10
    Ha! One of our brazilian waxing interviews also resulted in a pregnancy.

    I have a great story about my first time in a “goodie shop” (as my mother calls them) too! Also at 29 years old, also with three hilarious girlfriends and also tended to by a tragically un-hip and slightly pervy saleswoman (this was lesbian run). Was your store also in Norfolk, VA??? That would be weird.

    But I’m not allowed to write for TNB until I finish my latest round of edits.

    (I should probably ban myself from commenting too, but a girl does need a FEW distractions to get her through the day…)

    Thanks for the fun distractions! Long may the ‘Rabbit’ reign!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Kimberly M. Wetherell |Edit This
    2008-12-26 09:54:34
    I should clarify: the brazilian waxing resulted in a pregnancy, not the interview.

    The quote is: “We couldn’t keep our hands off myself!”

    Tee hee.

    (Comments wont nest below this level)

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-26 17:13:22
    Oh my God – that is, well, hysterical!

    I will look forward to the completion of your edits. Would LOVE to read about the Norfolk branch incident. So funny. Is it possible to enter a “goodie store” without incident? Just wondering.

    Keep writing – keep commenting! Love your posts.

    Reply here

    Comment by Bridget Johnson |Edit This
    2008-12-26 09:36:07
    Wow.. you are so full of information! I held a ’sex toys party’ about 3 years ago at the house.. (it was beyond fun – blow job shots and all) would have invited you if I would have known this story of sorts & you better then for sure!! Maybe it’s time to have another party of that sort – it’s priceless just to watch all the women in wonder at all the possibilities, yes.. that also did bring on a pregnancy or two as well.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-26 09:42:30
    I know…crazy, right? Sex = pregnancy. Who knew?

    And I think you did invite me to that party, only I for some reason didn’t put it together that it was you who had invited me. I found an invitation at my door and thought…huh? It was before I actually knew you. Hahaha. Also, I think I had book club (which is about the lamest excuse there is for missing a sex toys party). Please oh please have another one! I promise I’ll come! I *want* to be cool…I really do.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Beanie Brady |Edit This
    2008-12-26 10:31:15
    The moral of your tale is FAR better than any Aesop fable. I want more of Erika’s fables!!!

    So, to add a little trivia (and we all need some trivia) to this fascinating topic: did you know that the hysterectomy is the only -ectomy that’s not named for the body part being removed? Here’s a list of ectomies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_-ectomies All name the body part removed (appendectomy, lumpectomy, etc).

    The hysterectomy removed the part of the body that made a woman “hysterical”.

    Funny. Almost hysterical. But I still have my uterus, so I can be hysterical.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-26 10:39:01
    You have your uterus so you can be hysterical. I love it.

    You are indeed the trivia queen, Beanie Brady. When I first discovered this little history (about a year ago), you already knew all about it. I have smart friends.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Smibst |Edit This
    2008-12-26 11:39:41
    well…of course I had to read this one. Funny stuff…and the illustrations are classy.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-26 16:58:38
    I do believe I was specifically targeting you to read this one with that title…haha. Glad I could lure you in.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Josie |Edit This
    2008-12-26 13:43:41
    This is why I don’t go to the doctor’s office. Hysteria or no, steam powered, corded and battery operated devices may result in electrical shock. At least that’s what the warning tag on my chastity belt says.

    I remember my first time into the “adult toy store” when I was 12… I was very tall… I was with adults… I was very mature about it… I still have nightmares about penis shaped lipstick…

    You’re such a liar, ER – you did too write about masturbation!

    You hot chicks obviously can’t be trusted.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-26 17:02:22
    You went into an adult toy store at age 12??? No wonder you kept the lock on that chastity belt. I’ll bet that place scared the hell out of you.

    Can you imagine going into a doctor’s office today and him saying, “I think I know what’s needed. Come here little girl and hike up your skirt.” He’d be sued faster than I could…sneeze.

    Blame Smibst on the title. Ha!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
    2008-12-26 15:30:05
    Hmmm. If the economy goes south and I end up having to work in a sex store (talk about recession-proof, baby), I think there might be a thing or two I won’t have to learn in salesdude orientation. E.g. when you’re trying to sell a hummingbird tickler to a lady, the anatomical term to use would be “clitoris”, not “clit”. And when extemporizing upon the topic to an audience of three ladies do be good enough not to appear to single out the one upon whom you’d most fancy a practical demonstration. Say sagely to all three of them: “it’s for your clitorides.” And then they might be so impressed at your courtesy, or baffled at WTF you’re on about that they’d all three make the purchase, leaving you a swell commission.

    OTOH, maybe I’d find another recession-proof line of work. I still remember the Sex in the City scene where Samantha returned her “personal massager” after she broke it within the 14-day return period, and I especially remember the look on the face of the clerk faced with the transaction. There’s a lesson for children, folks.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-26 17:09:58
    Uche, I am hella impressed that you know the correct latin plural for clitoris. Me – I had to look it up in the urban dictionary. Props.

    And yes, you are absolutely right. He chose the wrong one of us to attempt to woo with his sales speak. He was actually pretty lucky that V didn’t haul off and deck him right then and there.

    Love that girl.

    I would pay money to see you work in a sex store, if even for a day. Ha! (I think L would be awfully impressed, as well.)

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Nina |Edit This
    2008-12-26 18:19:29
    A Dutchman had a good laugh at my spouse and I when we were going through customs on the way back to the states. Through a series of quick-fire questioning including: why were you visiting Amsterdam, where did you stay, do you have any electronically operated items with you….uh uh I just stare at Jason exasperated and not knowing quite how to say it especially since we had partaken in one of the other Dutch pleasures. It was my first vibrator and I was already embarrassed about it without having to tell a total stranger. Jason took over by saying uh uh and the guy smoothly fills in for us – is it a sex toy? Why yes, is that illegal? He was not surprised in the least but Jason and I laughed for days.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-26 19:36:36
    Love it. I wonder how many times a day he has to ask that of couples returning through the gates. I assume he let you keep it?

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Nina |Edit This
    2008-12-26 20:01:52
    oh but of course!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by renobrator |Edit This
    2008-12-26 20:31:44
    one of the pleasure of living is learning something new. at least for nerds like me it is. vibrators! lord. i never knew they had such a history. but it makes perfect sex. i mean perfect sense…

    me, i don’t own a vibrator. but i’m pro-vibrator. i say use them. paint them. read them poetry. take them through customs. do it.

    i think vibrators are a bit more classy than dildos. even the name sounds better. vi-bra-tor. not dil-do. what do you say, e?

    “Touchy subject, vibrators. Kind of embarrassing. Got one? Sure. A whole collection. I got them from your mom. Right.”

    i’m a fan of solid passages. this one is a keeper. the ol’ inner dialoge. nice economy. and, of course, funny. i’m a sucker for funny. you have funny you have me. pals. comrades. chums. partners in ALL crimes.

    happy new year, man.

    steely dan,
    r

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-27 08:17:55
    Thanks, renobrator. (Classier, for sure!)

    You are so right about the word “vibrator” being classier than “dildo.” “Dildo” sounds like something a 13 year old boy came up with while eating Cheezits with his friends gathered around MTV after school one day. Very Beavus and Butthead.

    On the other side of the extreme, there is the word “masturbate.” Very fancy – but quite possibly the ugliest word in the English language. This is probably because it’s actually latin, of course – but shouldn’t somebody come up with a more attractive word? Or is that the point…? I’m having an epiphany here (yes, I mean epiphany) – this word is obviously still ugly because of the conservative church. It’s oppression, man! The act is sinful (”spilling one’s own seed” and such), and, therefore, so must be the word. Kind of like…a psychological onomatopoeia.

    Penance involves just saying the word aloud.

    Thanks for the nice comment. Always lovely to hear from you. It would be a great honor to be your chum.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by RD Armstrong |Edit This
    2008-12-26 23:02:57
    This looks like a job for Rube Goldberg!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-27 08:20:35
    Doesn’t it though? I am duly impressed by the amount of levers, bars and handles on the Chattanooga. But where is the hamster wheel?

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Rich Ferguson |Edit This
    2008-12-27 18:42:51
    Damn Erika:

    As I was reading the earlier parts of your post, I was thinking to myself: If I were a girl I don’t know if I’d want a hummingbird’s beak touching my clit either. But then I saw that Chattanooga choo-choo thing, then that Butler’s Electro-massage machine which looked more like a meat-grinder crossed with a portable vacuum, crossed with God knows what else.

    Then I thought, hell, maybe a hummingbird’s beak on my clit–whether it were a real bird, or a vibrator–wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.

    Happy New Year…

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-28 09:45:22
    Am laughing out loud at your comment. It’s all relative, I suppose!

    Happy New Year backatcha!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
    2008-12-28 07:59:02
    Oh Erika Rae!

    I’ve been in snowy rainy foggy slippery Chicago and I missed seeing this right away.

    I am REALLY impressed by the contraptions you found! Who knew?

    You do a great job on research!

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-28 09:41:29
    Thanks, Irene! You’re so reaffirming as my TNB mother. I’m really glad because my REAL mother would definitely not approve.

    Hope you’re having a lovely holiday.

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by jmb |Edit This
    2008-12-29 10:50:35
    My grad school sex therapy teacher said it so succinctly:

    “When it comes to sex all research shows the wanting is better than the having.”

    Are dildos existential?

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
    2008-12-30 11:29:51
    Ha! Although, I would only partially agree with your sex therapy teacher. Sometimes the having…

    As for your question, I think you need to write a white paper on the topic.

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  7. Karan says:

    Did not know there was so much history behind the “simple” vibrator”

  8. Hence, it makes sense to get some popular toys for boys as gifts for Christmas and their birthdays.

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