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13 Jun 2024 (Last updated 13 Jun 2024)

The real history of vibrators.

Vibrator Guide 6 min read
old advertisements for vibrators

Why we need to rewrite the history of electronic sex toys.

Let’s debunk one big myth: that vibrators were invented by Victorian doctors to cure hysteria. There is no real evidence to prove that anybody created electronic vibrators to cure hysteria in doctors’ offices (the doctor’s hands were apparently getting tired); it’s all hearsay!

The rumor all started with a 1990s book called The Technology of The Orgasm by Rachel Maines. It hypothesized that physicians provided a clitoral massage with vibrators, seeing it not as a sexual act but as a way to induce orgasms to treat hysteria. This hypothesis was taken as fact and passed down by many of us.

It’s scholars like Hallie Lieberman who have worked to disprove this theory - like this academic study published in the Journal of Positive Sexuality - and rewrite the history of vibrators for the greater good.

‘…the myth isn’t harmless. It’s a fantasy that contributes to the ways we still misunderstand female sexuality and that perpetuates harmful stereotypes that continue to resonate in our laws and attitudes.’ Hallie Lieberman, Sex and Gender Historian.

Hallie highlights in The New York Times (2020) that the story about why vibrators were invented does little for women’s empowerment, perpetuating the idea that we lack sexual agency. It also evokes a false sense of progression (from sexual repression) that can make people satisfied with how far we’ve come since Victorian times. Of course, we have come so far in the past century, but there is still a long way to go; the sexual toy industry still experiences double-standards from platforms like Meta, women’s bodies and health issues are still censored and sexualized, sex education is still limiting.

So, what is the actual history of sex toys?

The way we see it, for as long as humans have existed, we’ve sought to enhance the pleasure in our lives.

Legend has it that Cleopatra filled a glass jar with bees to stimulate her clitoris - there is no real evidence, but it’s a fun idea. Sex-enhancing aids are referenced in the Kama Sutra, Ben Wa Balls (kegel balls) used in Japan, and archeologists are always finding phallic pieces from Roman times. The latter often make the news, which on one hand we love, as it celebrates sex throughout history, and on the other hand, we’re tired of only the penis-shaped ones making headlines. We can’t help but wonder if this clickbait perpetuates the idea that sexual stimulation is only penetrative - something we spend our days at Smile Makers ensuring everybody knows is not the case. There is way more to sex toys than just dildos!

Who invented vibrators?

A British man was the first to patent the electromechanical vibrator. Joseph Mortimer Granville was a physician and the inventor of the first handheld vibrator, which was designed to relieve muscle aches. Granville was adamant that his creation was not designed for women’s pleasure.

‘I have never yet percussed a female patient... I have avoided, and shall continue to avoid the treatment of women by percussion…’ Joseph Mortimer Granville, Nerve-Vibration and Excitation as Agents in the Treatment of Functional Disorder and Organic Disease (1883).

Percussion being the hammer-like motion this first-ever vibrator machine was designed to do, which Kate Lister, author of A Curious History of Sex (2021) fairly suggests does not sound the least bit appealing.

The first vibrator, by Dr J. Mortimer Granville in 1883.

We have this Victorian generation of women to thank for picking these handheld devices up and thinking ‘huh, I wonder…’. Who knows, maybe even their partners thought it too. This moment created an exciting development of pleasure beyond partnered sex and hands; efficient, novel, and playful - causing quite the buzz.

When did vibrators become popular?

Things accelerated when Hitachi came out with ‘The Magic Wand,’ even though the company refused to acknowledge its pleasurable powers (!!!) - it became an iconic ‘sex toy’ bought at department stores. It was an awkward exchange with a department store clerk that then inspired the world’s first women’s sex shop. In 1974, Dell Williams opened a dedicated safe space called Eve’s Garden for women to shop and explore their sexuality, and enhance their sex education. This coincided with the Women's Liberation Movement in the 70s, which brought women’s sexuality out in the open. This era allowed women to be excited about pleasure, for self-expression, and to explore sex in a space that needn’t be about shouting from the rooftops ‘I love sex’, but value it as part of life.

‘I was thrush and vigourous from the womens movement in the early 70s, I was imbued with a sense of dedication and purpose. The immediate goal? To create a comfortable, sex-positive place where women can have acess to books and vibrators that would expand their space to enjoy sexual self-responsibility. To know that they could be responsible for their own sexuality’ Dell Williams.

Williams’ determination to make a change, whilst teaming up with iconic sex educators like Betty Dodson, caused a dramatic shift in the retail of sex toys. The manufacturers of vibrators started making safer products, with better motors, and body-safe materials, helping lay the foundations for a booming sexual wellness market.

How did vibrators become mainstream?

We couldn’t help but wonder if the rabbit vibrator would be as iconic if it weren’t for HBO’s Sex and The City. The TV series about four New York women did a lot to break vibrator taboos and bring the conversation into pop culture. Over the six seasons, they discuss vibrators a few times, most memorably when Charlotte becomes infatuated with her first vibrator, creating a viral moment in a pre-social media era.

Since then, vibrators have moved from being labeled as ‘neck massagers’ in department stores to becoming way easier to shop than ever before. While specialized sex shops create a space for exploration, women want to be able to find vibrators alongside their other everyday products, such as wellness and beauty. Smile Makers became the first vibrator brand to launch in worldwide retailers like Goop and Monoprix. We made vibrator history as the first sexual wellness brand to launch at Sephora in 2022, beginning in Europe, then Australia, and in 2023, launching in the Sephora USA!

The future of vibrators exists beyond four walls; the world should be a safe space free of judgment and filled with pleasure.

More on the history of vibrators.

📖 Read: Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, Hallie Lieberman (2017)

📺 Watch: A mini-documentary by Jessie Bonney-Burrill to learn more about Dell Williams ‘Liberalization and Masturbation: The Story of Eve's Garden’ (2009)

🎧 Listen: Doing It podcast episode ‘The History of Vibrators, Virginity and Sex’ with Kate Lister and Hannah Witton (2020)




    For sexual wellness content that inspires even more pleasure in your life, follow @SmileMakersCollection - or check out our colorful collection of different types of vibrators for beginners and beyond.
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