1800's - "The Pulsocon"
English physician Joseph Mortimer Granville invented an electric vibrator in 1883, although similar machines like Dr. George Taylor’s steam-powered “Manipulator” table massager were already in use in France and the US.
What was Granville’s vibrator used for?
It was designed to treat pain, headaches, irritability, indigestion, and constipation—in men.
Hallie Lieberman, author of “Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy,” points out that Granville knew the vibrator could have sexual uses, and even used it to treat male sexual dysfunction, but he never used it on women.
At this time, hand crank models like Dr. Macaura’s “Pulsocon” were popular, due to their low cost and lack of need for a power source. The Pulsocon was marketed as a Blood Circulator, which could “stop pain quickly and cure chronic sufferers.”
Many doctors tried to treat diseases with vibrators, but found them ineffective. In 1915 the American Medical Association took a stand, calling the vibrator industry “a delusion and a snare.” Vibrator makers changed their approach, and started advertising their products as home appliances for men and women of all ages.
During this era men’s sexuality was more socially acceptable while women’s sexuality was rarely discussed—one reason why vibrators were advertised as a cure for male impotence, but not for sexual use by women. Many vibrators came with dildo-like attachments, but these were officially to treat uterine complaints and constipation.
1920's - 1950's - "The Polar Club"
Alfred Kinsey published groundbreaking research on female sexuality in 1954, including the finding that 62% of the women surveyed had masturbated, though he didn’t mention anything about vibrators.
Around this time, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) began cracking down on vibrators, but not because of associations with masturbation. The FDA had an issue with the marketing of vibrators as cure-alls and weight loss devices, remarking that, “the benefits of vibration are limited to temporary relief of minor physical conditions.”
Electric vibrators such as the The Polar Cub were marketed as superior beauty aids, capable of transforming not only a woman’s face but her entire body. An ad for the Arnold vibrator promised, “Every woman can have a faultless complexion and youthful, finely proportioned figure,” adding, “There is no further need of powder, paint, pads, or other deceptions.”
1960's - 1970's
As the birth control pill became widely available and attitudes towards premarital sex relaxed, some people began to speak more positively about masturbation. Sex educator and artist Betty Dodson began teaching women-only masturbation workshops in New York City in the late 1960s. Her original teaching aids were an Oster and a Panasonic Panabrator, but from the mid 1970s Dodson began recommending the Hitachi Magic Wand, helping to make it one of the most popular and well-known vibrators of all time.
But masturbation was still stigmatized in the US. A 1974 study found that 61% of women surveyed, masturbated, but 25% of them said they felt guilty, perverted, or feared going insane from doing it. And in some places it was criminal. The “Obscene Device Law” introduced in Texas in 1973, prohibited “any device designed or marketed primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.”
To get around these laws, companies marketed vibrators as “personal massagers.”
1980's - 1990's - "The Rabbit"
In 1983 the sex toy company Vibratex became the first to bring vibrators with internal and external components to the US. These toys were produced in bright colors and animal shapes in order to get around obscenity laws in Japan, where the vibrators were made.
The Beaver, the Kangaroo, and the Turtle all had an internal, penis-like component, along with different types of ticklers for external stimulation, but it was the Rabbit vibrator that rose to fame, thanks in part to an appearance on “Sex and the City.” The episode, which aired 1998, shows Charlotte becoming addicted to a Rabbit vibrator.