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31 Jan 2017 (Last updated 26 Jun 2023)

The surprising history of vibrators

Vibrator Guide 5 min read
old advertisements for vibrators

Vibrators. Half of women own one, they are now present in supermarkets and even in Ikea ads.

You have guessed well, we are talking about vibrators. You would be surprised to know that today's hush-hush accessory was differently perceived at its creation.

Here is the crazy history of vibrators.

History of vibrators starts with… a medical practice

Yes, vibrators were actually medical devices used for the treatment of hysteria. It goes back to a time where doctors used to recommend horse-riding to women suffering from hysteria. Some of them even sent their patients on long and tiring train rides as they were considered an even better treatment. The idea was that the vibration felt during these activities were beneficial to women. And there was the foundation of vibrators!

In the late 19th century, doctors introduced treatment of hysteria for women in their offices, by, well, masturbating them. As you may expect, the practice became very popular and represented most of the medical activity of physicians who did all this… with their hands!

The “Hand-Saviour”: Dr. J. Mortimer Granville, Inventor Of The Vibrator

Doctors getting (rightfully!) tired of all this masturbatory activity, one of them took it upon him to save all these poor hands by creating the first sexual vibrator.

a drawing of the first electrical vibrator

The first electric vibrator, by Dr J. Mortimer Granville

This was the advent of the vibrator. The practice spread amongst physicians and more models of vibrators were created, not only for pelvic massages but also for the entire body.

A Prescription For A Vibrator?

The success of vibratory treatments was so great that women wanted to have their very own vibrator at home for more “treatment” whenever they wished. The first quarter of 1900s saw the democratization of vibrators in “respected” households, alongside sawing machines, toasters and all the alike.

This was the golden age of vibrators, with usage spreading from doctor’s offices to households, but also to beauty parlours which offered this pleasurable experience to their clientele.

As early as 1899, vibrator ads had their place in the pages of female magazines, with benefits ranging from the cure of headaches to wrinkles. Vibrators of all kinds could be found at drugstores and department stores.

1920: from mainstream to dodgy

In the early years of the 20th century, women were all about vibrations. They were thought to have extraordinary health benefits, like what an advertising mentioned:

“Vibration is life. It will chase away the years like magic.”

Vibrators were so popular that their usage spread from homes to the entertainment industry, and in 1920 adult films started to show women pleasuring themselves with them. This had the effect of an electric choc, leading to a shift of the attitude of western society towards vibrators. They were now associated to “non-respectful women” and pornography.

This anecdotal event was enough to shed the veil of taboo on the usage of vibrators and completely reverse history, putting these objects in the category of naughty products we may use but never talk about to anyone!

This ice era of vibrators lasted for a long period of 70 years, until another anecdotical (and super awesome) event took charge of giving them back some legitimacy.

The taboo breaker : Sex and the City!

For many millennials, Sex and he City (SATC) is one of the best TV shows the 90s produced.

If you are a fan too, your love for the four New York women will get stronger when you will know that the show led the movement to breaking the taboo that surrounded vibrators since… the 1920s.

charlotte sex and the city vibrator

It took one episode (where the most conservative character of the show, Charlotte York, is featured discovering the pleasure of vibrators) to shatter the taboo. 3 of the 4 main characters of the show are comfortable with and use vibrators regularly, and the subject of vibrators will keep coming throug the episodes. Samantha, one of the characters, even uses one (clean!) to improve the performance of a rocking chair, putting her friend’s baby to sleep efficiently. The usage of vibrators in different scenes of the TV show paved the way to the mainstreaming of the devices.

This started to reverse the trend on vibrators, empowering women to feel more comfortable to own one (if even Charlotte had one, how could we not all have ours too?).

What comes next?

Sex and the City did a great job at starting the conversation about vibrators, and showing how everyday women are very likely to own such a device. However, this was not enough to take the devices out of specialty stores.

If a woman wishes to buy a vibrator, she most probably needs to go to a specialised store or order on the internet.

The next step? Being able to buy your pleasure accessory in your common health and/or beauty store, while shopping for make-up remover and tampons. It is not a behaviour that is widely spread yet, and this is what Smile Makers is trying to achieve!

Today is an important time for in the history of vibrators: it is the only time in their entire history where there is momentum towards a positive image. We women have the power to finally put vibrators into the category of mainstream wellbeing accessories by taking charge of our sexual wellbeing that we will achieve this.

And when in doubt, let’s remember the simple fact that vibrators were not created to be a taboo, they became one and it is about time to consider them again as what they really are: a wellbeing accessory for all women who wish to have one !


  • “The technology of orgasm”, Rachel Maines
  • “Masturbation and pop culture”, Lauren Rosewarne

To know more:

  • To watch: “Masters of Sex” and “Hysteria”
  • To read: “The technology of Orgasm” by Rachel Maines
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