What do Cleopatra and Vibrators Have in Common? (Pt. 1)

A few years ago I lived in a house that spoke very openly about sex and bodies. My roommates and I would pass around vibrators (along with a cleaning spray, obviously) to compare which models and styles worked best. The Hitatchi Magic Wand, the Jimmy Jane Form 6, and the Lelo Ora were among this collection. My roommates’ vibrators even had names—everyone, please welcome Kristoff and Thor to the family. Our guests would often see extra vibrators on our coffee table, and we gave more than one visitor a run-down on sexual pleasure. (Babeland, if you’re hiring, I’m definitely interested.) 

Most people I know have explored sex toys in some capacity. Admittedly, I live in a sex- and body-positive bubble. Every February, my alma mater has an event called “Bard On,” which is a day of sexual health olympics, sex toy raffles, free massages, and genital-themed cupcakes. My current job runs sexual health workshops and we’ve been sent demo vibrators—for educational purposes, of course. Perhaps, even you, have a toy so near and dear to you that it lives under your pillow.

As I delved more into the history of hysteria, I watched a documentary on the invention of the vibrator. “Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm” traced the invention of the electromechanical vibrator in the 1880’s to the resurgence of the vibrator in the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s. For all my work in sexual health education, I realized I didn’t know much about the history of sex toys more broadly. 

So I decided to investigate!

The world’s oldest known dildo was found in a section of rock dating back ~30,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic (or “late stone age”) era. There is some debate among the historical community as to whether or not this was actually used as a sex toy, but I (along with actual historians…) think that scholars who doubt its use are just unwilling to acknowledge human sexuality. I would imagine that as long as sex has existed, sex toys have existed. And not just among modern Homo sapiens but our predecessors as well. If other primates use tools to aid in sexual pleasure, then certainly every iteration of mankind has as well. 

By the Greco-Roman era the use of dildos was more prevalent. Dildo’s were depicted in Grecian vase art and mentioned in various Greek plays. Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” (411 BC) and Herodas’ “Mime VI” (3rd cent BC) both make jokes about dildos. There’s also some evidence that the Romans invented the double-ended dildo because the dominant belief was that sex required penetration. As a result, images depicting female masturbation or lesbian sex usually included a faux phallus. (This idea, unfortunately, still has traction.) 

Before the electrical vibrator appeared on the scene, it is rumored that Cleopatra fashioned a vibrator out of a hollowed out gourd filled with angry bees. There’s no historical evidence to back this up, but what an idea!

Dildos really took off in the post-classical era and early modern period. Chinese dildos were cast of bronze and other metals. Other dildos were crafted out of stone, gold, silver, and intricately carved ivory. Typically, Renaissance dildos were ornate and artistic. In fact, the word “dildo” comes from the Italian “diletto” which means “delight.” And it should be no surprise that Shakespeare referenced sexual aids in numerous plays. Artistic depictions in the 17th-19th century also suggest the use of candlesticks, broom handles, and unripe plantains (??) for sexual pleasure. I don’t know exactly how common this was, but I’ve read multiple accounts of a man giving his wife a cast of his penis when he went off to war. Kind of romantic, no?

The invention of electricity really gets things going. The Manipulator (1869), the Pulsocon hand crank (1890), and the Chattanooga vibrator (it was 5 feet tall!) all appeared on the scene during this time. Mortimer Granville is most often credited with the invention of the electromechanical vibrator in 1883. Similar devices were created across Europe and one of the first documented uses of the vibrator as a therapeutic practice was at Le Salpêtrière Hospital (where advancements in psychiatry were happening at the same time!) in 1878 with a device created by Roman Vigouroux. Regardless of the exact origins, vibrators became wildly popular among medical professionals for the treatment of hysteria. 

Vibrators began to be marketed for home use around 1899. Developments in advertising, railroads, and the post office facilitated mail order vibrators, making them accessible to the general population. Ads for vibrators appeared alongside needlepoint patterns in upscale women’s magazines. These ads didn’t offend Victorian sensibilities because vibrators were marketed as medical devices. The vibrator actually preceded the iron by 10 years, the vacuum by 9 years, and the electric frying pan by 11 years.

When vibrators started to appear in erotic movies and photographs in the 1920’s, though, physicians began dropping them because of the association with sexuality and advertisements for them began to disappear from respectable magazines. With the social camouflage gone, the vibrator essentially went underground for the next 40 years. 

Next week I’ll pick up at the sexual revolution and talk about vibrators as we know them today!

Did any of this surprise you? Share any fun facts or stories you have about vibrators in the comments!