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!

From Madness to Mental Illness: History of Psychiatry 101


Stone of madness, evil spirits, possessed by the devil—these were common explanations for madness before modern psychiatry. Madness was a term broadly applied to afflictions ranging from schizophrenia to autism to epilepsy to feminism, and was often attributed to a magical or supernatural causes. 

Imagine a medieval doctor using a flint to drill a hole into a patient's skull. This procedure, known as skull trepanation, was intended to create a hole in the patient's head through which an evil spirit could escape, thus curing them of their madness. Skulls over a thousand years old have been found bearing evidence of skull trepanation. Some of these skulls display healing around the bore, indicating that the patient survived long after the procedure!

This supernatural conception of madness extended past Christian Europe. Buddhists in Sri Lanka believed in the healing power of rituals and performed the devil’s dance to evict demons from those afflicted with madness.

Greco-Roman Medicine and the Four Humors

In 770 B.C.E. there were two medical schools in Greece: one in Knidos and one in Kos. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was a doctor at the Kos school. He rejected the notion that diseases were caused by evil spirits and sought a physical explanation. Hippocrates believed that disease was caused by an imbalance of the four major body fluids (i.e. the Four Humors): blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. In order to restore the correct proportions he used bleedings and vomitive therapies, suction of bile and phlegm, and laxative and dehydrating herbs. He considered madness a disease of the brain and treated patients with baths, rest, diet, and music. 

As in Greece, Roman medicine before Caesar (who brought Hippocratic theory to Rome) was an amalgam of mythology and magic. There were two approaches to madness: the repressive and the therapeutic. One camp viewed madness as the simulation of disease in order to escape social or economic responsibility (sound familiar?), and the other viewed it as the result of tension caused by the patient’s surroundings. For the former, treatment included confinement and torture. For the latter, therapy consisted of rest, music, and pleasant company. This dichotomy of repression and care continues even today.

Shifting Attitudes Toward Mental Illness

Before the rise of modern psychiatry, the mentally ill often weren’t treated at all but were separated from society. Isolation and confinement was the common fate of the economically unprofitable: the mentally ill, the disabled, orphans, and criminals.

The shift from madness to mental illness, that is, the understanding of mental illness as something supernatural to something biological, took off during the Enlightenment. The emphasis on the scientific method and the increased skepticism of religious orthodoxy laid the groundwork for a more scientific approach to mental health and medicine. 

It was during this time that the world began to widely understand mental illness as disease, and thus as something treatable. William Battie, an English physician, was the first to speak of the moral management of the mentally ill. After starting work at St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics, Battie published Treatise on Madness in 1758, in which he critiqued the coercive and barbaric treatment of the mentally ill and advocated for tailored, moral treatment. In France, this shift was led by Philippe Pinel. In his role as superintendent of La Salpêtrière Hospital, he abolished the use of chains for mental patients. In Germany, Johann Reil was the first to use the term “psychiatrie” in 1808. He advanced the idea that madness could be cured and that institutions were the therapeutic means for that treatment. Use of the general term “psychiatry” began in 1816.

Dr. Joseph Guislain, Belgium’s first psychiatrist, brought together two major schools of thought: the theory of  Philippe Pinel and the ideas of Jean-Étienne Esquirol. Pinel thought of madness as a disorder of the intellect and that the cause of madness was the result of the intestines disrupting the brain. (New studies suggest that there actually is a strong connection between the gut and the brain.) His student, Eqsuirol, attached importance to the passions. Esquirol believed that the passions could directly influence the soul and thus madness was a disease of the soul. Guislain argued that insanity is a disorder of the mind and the cause is found in the psyche. He acknowledged the role of biological causes of mental illness, but he placed more importance on fear, sadness, stress, and strong emotions. He also believed that social and cultural factors play a role in the development of mental illness.

Modern Approaches to Mental Health

I often hear people talk about the rise of mental illness, especially in the West, but the treatment of mental illness goes back millennia and extends all over the globe. Madness, neuroses, nerves, melancholia—these all translate to what we today understand as anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. I think there is an argument to be made that antidepressants and benzodiazepines are overprescribed, and that the terms "anxiety" and "depression" are misused to describe normal stress and sadness. But the existence and treatment of mental illness is not new.

Today, the rhetoric around mental health is focused on the biological roots of mental disorders. This connection is only strengthened by advancements in brain imaging techniques and genetic sequencing. And as these technologies advance, they can be translated into more precise treatment that is specific to individual patients. Not only are science and medicine advancing, but the conversation around mental illness is changing. There are widespread campaigns to reduce the stigma around mental illness, and the internet provides resources and support to people who might struggle to access it elsewhere.