A Brief History Of Vintage Vibrators & Some Horrifying Examples

It’s fun to look back on antique vibrators – and be glad we never used them – from infrared to steam-powered sex toys designed to cure our ‘feminine hysteria.’
Antiqued Photograph Of The Shelton Electric Vibrator
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Today’s vibrators may be sleek, comfortable, and user-friendly, but the vibrators of yesteryear are the stuff of nightmares.

Granted, that’s kind of how it goes with mechanical advancements, isn’t it?

A rudimentary contraption is invented (like the hand-crank washing machine or rotary phone, for instance) and over decades or centuries, continual and often vast improvements are made.

Thankfully, the original designs of the earliest vibrators remain little more than a bad memory.

Vintage vibrators were the vital spark that eventually ignited a sexual pleasure revolution, but thankfully, we’ve come a long way from those early (and often terrifying) devices.

In this article we’ll talk about:

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Complete Guide To Vibrators and Everything Vibrators hub, in-depth and evolving resources that comprehensively explore all aspects of vibrators from the different types and how to use them, to materials and safety — created to help you achieve the sexual pleasure you deserve.

Vintage Vibrators: A Brief History — And Some Myth-Busting

Antiqued Photograph Of Vintage Polar Club Electric Vibrator

Vibrating appliances first came on the scene in the mid to late 1800s but they weren’t available to the public right away.

Dr. George Taylor patented the first steam-powered vibrator in 1869, although it was exclusive to doctors and spas.

One of the earliest vibrators available for home use was made by General Electric — yeah, the same people who make microwaves and washing machines.

As you might imagine, it wasn’t marketed as a genital pleasure enhancer.

It was referred to as an “all over your body” massager capable of aiding the liver and “curing” various health problems in adults and children.

In fact, early vibrators were used to treat ailments of all kinds, including:

  • Sciatica
  • Lumbago
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Gout
  • Consumption
  • Paralysis
  • Female Hysteria

That last one is where one of the most pervasive myths about the vibrator — and its history — seems to have originated.

Dispelling The Myth Of The Vibrator & Doctor-Aided Orgasms

Researcher and historian Rachel P Maines asserts that doctors in the Victorian era developed vibrators to speed up the treatment of “feminine hysteria.”

What’s that, you wonder? So glad you asked.

Feminine hysteria was based on the idea that when a woman’s uterus suffers from neglect, she becomes hysterical.

Genital massage was first prescribed for hysteria by Galen of Pergamon around 200 A.D.

The treatment consisted of stimulating the female genitals until a state of “hysterical paroxysm” was reached — what you and I would call an orgasm.

Let’s all pause for a moment to consider what life was like for a woman to be called hysterical when she only needed to cum. And she had to go to a friggin’ doctor to do it.

This vibrator origin story is oft-repeated. But is it entirely true?

Not really.

While there is evidence that some doctors of the era used vibrators to masturbate female patients being treated for hysteria, there’s not much suggesting that this was a widespread practice (pun intended).

Honestly, if I saw a vintage vibrator from the early 1900s coming at me, my only impulse would be to leap off the exam table and sprint all the way home.

But the larger point is that while doctors often used massage to treat female patients, it wasn’t necessarily genital massage.

There isn’t much in the way of a historical basis supporting this long-held myth.

That isn’t to say there weren’t shady doctors out there doing shady things to their female patients.

For the most part, however, it wasn’t a common “prescribed” treatment in the sense many have come to believe.

How Vintage Vibrators Were Marketed To The Masses

We mentioned earlier that vibrators were thought to treat health ailments all over the body and were used that way — often and with much vigor.

As such, doctors bought the lion’s share of vibrating massagers to treat their patients.

During that era, manufacturers invented models that were powered by steam, electricity, and even hand-held cranks to keep up with the demand for such products.

In the early 20th century, however, it became clear that vibrators weren’t a magical cure-all. At that point, manufacturers were left with a lot of vibrating massagers — and no doctors buying them.

So the marketing switched to appeal to consumers, instead.

For the most part, early vibrators were marketed as home appliances for massage — largely for women — to release tension, soothe aching muscles, and even promote healthy skin and scalps at home.

Some were marketed as being good for the whole family!

Their printed advertisements weren’t overtly sexual, at least not at first.

Obscenity laws made it difficult if not outright impossible for any manufacturer to market a product as a sexual aide.

So they weren’t.

It’s safe to say that the “alternate” use for vibrators was pretty well-known, even if the ads didn’t provide a graphic depiction using a sexy illustration.

It wasn’t until the 60s that vibrators were marketed as sex toys out in the open.

They remained controversial, however — for a long time.

Did you know that only 1% of women surveyed in 1970 said they’d used a vibrator?

Is that because they really hadn’t used one, or because they just wouldn’t admit it?

We’ll never know for sure, but vibrators and our attitudes toward them have thankfully come a long way since then.

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What Classifies A Vibrator As “Vintage”

It might make sense to say that any sex toy older than 25 years could be considered vintage.

But does that mean the original Rabbit vibe is an antique sex toy? Come on…that can’t be right.

Let’s go back 50 years, then. The Hitachi Magic Wand has been around since 1968, making that a vintage vibrator as well.

That seems impossible.

Although an antique is generally considered by most to be anything that’s at least 100 years old, there is not a clear consensus on the age of something vintage.

That particular designation is highly subjective and largely depends on the collector or the dealer.

Generally speaking, “vintage” is an item that’s at least 40 years old, however, many folks consider it to mean any object that’s 25 years or older.

An additional line of thinking is that “vintage” relates to the era an item originated from — for instance, a vintage 50s vibrator, or a vintage 80s rabbit.

As we use the term here, a vintage vibrator is at least 40 years old and manufactured during a specific era.

Although the original Hitachi Magic Wand is still around, for example, the vibrator would only be considered “vintage” if it was physically manufactured in the 60s or 70s.

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The Scariest Vintage Vibrators

Obviously, scary is in the eye of the beholder.

As someone who dabbles in terror, I can tell you that some vintage vibes are ghastlier than a thousand ghouls.

In this section, we’ll take a look at the most frightening vibrators the world has ever seen:

The (Mythical) Bees

Antiqued Photograph Of Two Gourds, Depicting Cleopatra's Rumored Vibrator“They” say that when guys like Ceasar and Marc Antony were out of town, Cleopatra used to masturbate with a hollowed-out gourd filled with bees.

Is that a true story or something men made up to talk smack about a powerful woman? We can’t know for sure.

But if it’s true, angry bees inside a gourd held against our lady bits has to be one of the most terrifying sex toys in human history.

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The Manipulator Table Massager (circa 1869)

Antiqued Photo-Illustration Of The Manipulator Table VibratorInvented by Dr. George Taylor and believed to be the first mechanical vibrator, this is a steam-powered vibe that took up most of an exam room.

Obviously, steam-powered things and naked skin do not go together.

As we mentioned earlier, however, tools like this one lend credence to the idea that doctors would actually masturbate their female patients in the exam room.

Some of them may have — but the practice doesn’t seem to have been as common as the myth leads us to believe.

Vibrators like this one were used to treat body pain, muscle aches, headaches, constipation, and a wide range of ailments that weren’t “the need for an orgasm.”

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The Heidelberg Belt (circa 1880-1920)

Illustrated Advertisement For The Heidelberg Belt

Just in case you thought only women were terrorized by vibrators at the turn of the 20th century, men didn’t have it so easy, either.

The Heidelberg Belt was sold in the Sears catalog to treat “all diseases” and to improve your constitution if you felt over-worked, nervous, weak, or generally run down.

For just $8, you too could enjoy a 40-gauge current of electricity shooting through your nethers.

And you got to try it FREE for ten days! What a deal!

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Detwiller Pneumatic (1906)

Photograph Of Detwiller Pneumatic Vintage VibratorFor the uninitiated, pneumatics involve manipulating objects using compressed air.

A pneumatic hammer, for example, can shoot a nail straight through your hand.

So why would you want this antique vibrator anywhere near your tinderbox? I wouldn’t.

But in 1906, plenty of ladies were prepared to give it a whirl.

The only “modern” aspect of this one is the inclusion of various attachments.

What those attachments do, however, we’re not sure we really want to know…

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The American Portable Vibrator (circa 1906)

Printed Advertisement For The American Portable Vibrator

Marketed for the whole family, this amazing vintage vibrator weighed two and a half pounds.

Think about that for a moment.

It could be used on your scalp, cleavage, and anywhere else that needed massaging, and its “rotary movement” was recommended to remove wrinkles and beautify your complexion.

The real magic is that it didn’t even plug into a wall. This thing straight-up screwed into a light socket.

Which makes sense. If you’re forced to use it in the dark, at least you don’t have to look at it.

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The Shelton Electric Vibrator (circa 1910)

Antiqued Photograph Of The Shelton Electric Vibrator

Patented by the Shelton Electric Company, this thing doubles as a power sander.

Just kidding! (We hope.)

This horrifying specimen was marketed as a way to enjoy a professional massage at home — and without the professional hands attached.

We’re not here to tell a person how to live their life, but we fail to see how it lived up to its marketing.

It was promoted as a “wholesome, sparkling degree of vigor that life will present a new aspect to the man or woman who has moped along in a semi-invalid condition for a long period.”

It looks better suited to table sanding, honestly.

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The Polar Cub Electric Vibrator (circa 1921)

Photograph Of The Polar Cub Electric Vibrator With Its Box

We’re not sure exactly how this is supposed to get you hot and bothered — or if it is.

Manufactured by the A.C. Gilbert Company — yes, the same company known for the Erector Set so many kids played with back in the day, this vibrator actually featured two rubber attachments for versatility.

Going by the photograph on the box, maybe it’s part fan and part vibrator?

That might be useful if your vulva’s on fire.

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Rolling Pin Heat Massager (circa 1930s)

Photograph Of The Rolling Pin Heat Massager

Even given the rampant sexism of the day, disguising a sex toy as a baking tool is a little much.

This terrifying thing isn’t just ghastly to behold and confounding to use. It heats up.

The technology of the day makes me suspect that didn’t always go as planned — leading to some very uncomfortable scorching, I’d imagine.

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Infra-Red Heat Massager (1950s)

Photograph Of The Infra-Red Heat Massager

Oster, another company we associate with appliances like blenders and hair dryers, gave the world the Infra-Red Massager/Vibrator in the 1950s.

Why anyone would want infrared light on their genitals is beyond me.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these is that when I found them being sold at auction sites, reviews suggested people were actually using them.

Um…don’t.

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Stim-U-Lax Junior (1950s)

Photograph Of The Stim-U-Lax Junior

Brought to us by Oster (who clearly should have stuck with blenders and hair dryers), the Stim-U-Lax Junior was marketed largely for head and neck massage.

In fact, its larger sibling — the original Stim-U-Lax, circa 1948 — was a common massager used in barbershops.

At first glance, it looks sort of like a grenade but the metal springs on the bottom are actually used to attach it to your hand during use.

We can only imagine what this thing sounds like when it goes off.

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Where Can You Find Vintage Vibrators?

If you want an antique vibrator for the nostalgic, historical, or decorative value, they’re pretty easy to find on sites like eBay or private auction houses.

The old GE “appliance” vibrators typically go for less than $30 on auction sites. Models by makers like Wahl, Oster, and Panasonic are available for even less.

If you want a vintage Hitachi though, it’s gonna set you back.

Those start in the $70 range but can include gems like this double vibe that I never knew existed until now:

Photograph Of Double-Headed Vintage Hitachi Massager

Honestly, how would one even use this antique vibe for sexy purposes?

It’s safe to say that the older and rarer a vibrator is, the harder it’s going to be to find — and the more it will cost.

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Is It Safe To Use A Vintage Vibrator?

In short, no.

Any antique vibe — or honestly, any sex toy more than a decade old — should be viewed with extreme scrutiny.

The functionality of a vintage vibrator is speculative, at best.

Electronic components degrade over time and particularly for models that plug into walls, you don’t want to put your genitals at risk should anything happen during use.

Batteries can leak acid and compromise the device. If batteries were left in it for a long period, it just isn’t going to be safe to experiment with.

Materials like metal, plastic, rubber, and even silicone can degrade, rust, or become worn over time — increasing the chances of injury or bacterial contamination.

The thing to keep in mind is that older sex toys were produced with far fewer restrictions than modern ones. They were probably not very safe then, and less so after sitting around for many decades.

And truthfully, many vintage vibrators are terrifying.

If curiosity is something you can’t fight and you simply have to try a vintage vibrator, use it over your clothing or cover all of it with a condom(s) and examine the electronics to the best of your ability.

Clean it thoroughly and sanitize it if possible (although this is highly unlikely).

Better yet, just don’t use them.

Vintage vibrators can be fun conversation pieces when they’re on display — and it is safest if that’s where they stay.

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Where Can I See Vintage Vibrators?

Good Vibrations — one of the first out-loud-and-proud sex stores — has an Antique Vibrator Museum.

It’s a can’t-miss opportunity. And yes — there are docents!

You can find this whimsical place in San Francisco, California.

Also located on the west coast, the Vintage Vibrator Museum can be found in Los Angeles, California.

The Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas features many rotating exhibits that, depending on when you go, may have vintage vibrators to check out.

Why are all the sex toy museums out west? No, I’m asking.

If you find yourself in Prague, the Sex Machines Museum looks to be an exciting (if not a little frightening) glimpse into the history of sex machinery — it’s the only museum in the world dedicated to them.

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In Conclusion

Sex toys have come a long way from the days when they were carved from rocks or whittled from wood. Modern sex toys are high-end tech on the cutting edge of science.

Luckily, the days of pretending women don’t masturbate are far behind us.

So are the days of infrared, steam-powered, and pneumatic sex toys designed to cure our “feminine hysteria.”

Still, it’s fun to look back on antique vibrators — and be glad we never had to resort to using them.