Monday, 8 November 2010

Delightful companions


No sooner did Stephen Fry come out with his ignorant Victorian pronouncement about women and sex than a whole new dimension on the sexual experience of Victorian women is about to emerge. For those not already aware of this London is currently being used for a spot of location shooting on Hysteria, a movie that’s bound to create something of a buzz. Buzz and buzzing, I expect people are going to hear these words ad nauseum; for, you see, it centres on the invention of a certain female sex aid: Hysteria brings the vibrator to the world!

It’s the 1880s, a time when a great many of the medical problems suffered by women were put down loosely to ‘hysteria.’ This condition, which comes down essentially to one thing, sexual frustration, has a long history in medicine, going all the way back to Galen and the ancients. It comes from hysteros, the Greek word for the womb, since a whole variety of symptoms, anything from anxiety to erotic fantasy, were believed to be the result of a blocked reproductive system. What was the remedy, you may wonder? A spot of stimulation, that’s what, although not to be self-administered, and that’s on the best medical advice available. Avicenna, the Muslim founder of early modern medicine, wrote that it was “a man’s job, suitable only for husbands and doctors.” Hmmm.

There are records of ‘stimulation’ being carried out by doctors at least since 1653, with the final stages, the ‘pelvic massage’, most often being undertaken by mid-wives. We can go back still further, to the sixteenth century, when unmarried women, lacking in marital consolation, were urged to take “vigorous horseback exercise” or make use of a rocking horse or a swing. Horseback riding, yes, I can personally recommend that: there is no better source of natural massage or, ahem, stimulation!

Now we are in the nineteenth century, the high noon of medical professionalization and sexual prudery. The doctors are offering female patients release from their pent up frustration (presumably brought on by the sexual inadequacies of most Victorian men) in a course of treatment that would climax in something described as “hysterical paroxysm”; it would climax in, well, a climax! But in the absence of mid-wives, and reluctant to carry out the task themselves, for the best professional reasons, of course, a little buzzing friend made its way into history.

According to the movie, Doctor Joseph Mortimer Granville, played by Hugh Dancy, was the first to create the electromagnetic vibrator, or the ‘manipulator’ as it was known at the time. The idea was taken up by Hamilton Beach, and American company, and by the end of the century the manipulator was being mass marketed, appearing in shops and catalogues even before the plug-in version of the vacuum cleaner or the iron! Of course the whole thing had to be covered in lashings of Victorian hypocrisy, everyone pretending that it was about an identifiable medical condition when it was so obviously just about sexual release.

I’m off to London’s Science Museum next weekend because it apparently has a collection of more than forty early vibrators, something I did not know, something I simply must see. I was just so amused to discover this, so amused to discover that they were widely advertised at the time. I read in the Sunday press that Good Housekeeping, of all publications, ran a ‘tried and tested’ feature in 1909. Was the editorial office was full of smiling women? Yes, I expect it was. In 1918 Sears and Roebuck offered a vibrator attachment for a home motor, one that would also drive a churn, a mixer and a sewing machine! Who says that women are not versatile? A few years later portable vibrators were being promoted as “delightful companions.”

Now, Mr Fry, you were saying? :-)

37 comments:

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  5. Can't wait to see the gift shop for that one. :)

    I find stimulation to be a necessary sleep aide, and a certain Impish blogger great fantasy fuel ;-)

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  6. It's funny how much we knew when we didn't.

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  7. Oh, those stuffy Victorians! Also inventors of tonic wines fortified with cocaine and of laudanum (tincture of opium) the sleep aid that's fun for the whole family when gin or whisky alone won't get the job done. Of course, they wouldn't have needed either potion if only they had been clever enough to discover sex. But they were far too busy having industrial revolutions and building empires and railways and exploring for the source of the Nile and abusing natives of torrid climes. Hardly left any time at all for masturbation. It makes me wonder however my great grandparents managed to produce and rear 13 children.

    I'm a trifle disturbed by two of your comments, Ana. Surely a refined young lady rides sidesaddle? And, I believe that the proper term for these miracle devices ought to be "woman-ipulators" to soothe the anxious nerves of our more sensitive young ladies of political bent. We must not allow our unfair advantage of Classical knowledge interfere with the ruthless eradication of that three-letter syllable of sexual oppression.

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  9. Adam, I do not have a political stand on vibrators!

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  10. Coll, you are a naughty boy, a fairly typical male, in other words. :-))

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  12. Jeremy, I'm a digger in the mines of endless delight!

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  14. Calvin, adventurous young ladies, both in the sixteenth century and now, simply never ride side-saddle! As for language, you may have a point. :-))

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  15. This is all terribly British, isn't it? The surface appearance of prudery that masks the very opposite.

    I'm sure someone at some redbrick university is undertaking research into a cross-cultural study of vibrators as we speak...

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  16. I'm surprised (see, you can still) that a relentlessly curious hysterian ... historian ...like you didn't know about these contraptions. The topic has been "flogged" to death by the BBC and ABC over the years. Also, I think it was an episode of Boston Legal in which litigation was occurring pertaining to ownership of a steam-powered device of the same nature. When the judge had seen enough of the whistling, creaking thruster at work he ordered it shut off. When it didn't immediately cease, the counsel demonstrating the workings had to explain that it took a while for a steam emgine to subside.

    Oddly, the other great Victorian fixation was patent devices for preventing juvenile masturbation. Somewhere someone's written a book about all this but, as usual...

    Do they let you take photos in the Museum? You could post some here for the edification of the depraved - deprived - masses.

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  17. Self gratification provides some relief of frustration , but is a poor substitute for a right good one. Then again it is not as messy as most relationships. You think too much on these matters you deviant little Imp.

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  18. Well, this one caught me off guard. Never realized these handy devices existed way back when. Wonder if they ever made their way across the ocean to the US. Maybe in the posh suburbs of Boston or old New York.

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  19. Pity . . . it's very fetching.

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  20. Adam, I know nothing about the 'medical benefits' of vibrators, either then or now!

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  21. Dominic, if I was not otherwise engaged...:-)

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  22. Retarius, obviously I don't watch nearly enough TV! If I can I will. :-)

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  24. Calvin, I shall revive the practice, just for you. :-)

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  27. Adam, I have no interest at all in the 'medical benefits', a rather regressive and Victorian rationalisation, I would have thought. :-))

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  28. A paracetamol is about as damaging to the liver as three pints; a vibrator has no negative side effects and accomplishes much the same medical benefit. How can something as wise as you now know this?

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  29. Adam, you are missing the point. It's about sexual satisfaction, not about medicine. That just seems so much BS to me. :-))

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  33. I pay no attention whatsoever to 'expert opinion', my loss, I feel sure. :-)

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