There are a lot of myths and misinformation surrounding the vibrator’s history – most of which I believed myself until I started doing some research. But that’s exactly what Sneak Peak is about – doing the heavy lifting so you can sit back, get comfy and enjoy!

If you’re interested in learning the truth about how the vibrator came to be, keep reading! We’ll take you along a journey through the decades, from Dr. Granville and hysteria, to Charlotte York-Goldenblatt and the Rabbit – and beyond.

Female hysteria: where the myth began

If you’ve seen the movie Hysteria (2011), you’ll understand why links have been made between vibrators and the illness’ diagnosis. But what is hysteria?

The term comes from the Greek word hysterika, meaning uterus. During the 6th Century BC, Greek physician Aerateus theorised that the womb could move freely around a woman’s body, causing poor physical and mental health. Since then, hysteria has been used to describe a variety of ailments in women, ranging from aggression to fainting to nymphomania. And let’s not forget my personal favourite: farting. If the latter were really the case, I’d have an extreme case of hysteria (just ask Steve).

The hypothesis

In 1883, English physician Joseph Mortimer Granville invented an electric vibrator. While there were already other versions in use at the time, such as Dr. George Taylor’s steam-powered Manipulator, the one everyone remembers is Granville. This is in part thanks to the film where he was depicted as an honest heartthrob just trying to help suffering women reach “paroxysmal convulsions”, as well as the 1998 book that the movie was based on, by Rachel Maines.

People just loved my hypothesis, and that’s all it is really, a hypothesis.

Maine goes on to say that people loved her idea so much that it’s been passed around as though it were fact, but actually, it’s pure speculation. As yet, no hard evidence suggesting that doctors stimulated their patients to orgasm as a hysteria treatment has been found.

The reality

So what was Granville’s vibrator actually for?

Believe it or not, it was designed to treat pain, headaches, irritability, indigestion and constipation – in men.

1915 advertisement for vibrators

Many doctors started using vibrators with the intention of treating all of these symptoms and more, but ultimately they found them pretty ineffective. A pity really, because if they could treat irritability in men I’d definitely use it on Steve more often 😛

By 1915, the American Medical Association took a stand, labelling the vibrator industry as “a delusion and a snare”. This meant vibrator manufacturers had to change their approach to marketing – pivoting from the medical industry towards the home appliances market.

The start of something special

Have you seen those infomercials for vibration plates? A machine you stand on that supposedly transmits energy throughout your body, helping you to lose weight faster? It sounds too good to be true, right? But admit it, there’s a tiny part of you that’s curious too.

That’s exactly how the vibrator was advertised. It was everywhere – in popular magazines, the New York Times, even (hilariously) in Christian publications, promising it could cure everything from wrinkles to malaria. There were even “tried and tested” reviews of different models that I’m 99% certain were not actually tried, nor tested.

Advertisement of woman using vibrator on face

But were people using them to masturbate?

When Granville invented the vibrator, he knew it could have sexual uses. He even used it to treat male sexual dysfunction. But at the time masturbation was widely viewed as shameful, and “obscene” articles, such as sex toys, were illegal in the US. This meant that vibrators couldn’t be advertised as sexual products or they’d quickly be banned.

Instead, they adopted the same strategy used by contraceptive companies: they emphasised the non-sexual uses, and through euphemistic language and imagery, hinted at the sexual ones. For example, a 1908 advertisement for the Bebout vibrator made it clear that something… sneaky was going on:

Invented by a woman who knows a woman’s needs.

Better still, by 1956, department store Sears advertised their own vibrator as giving you that “great-to-be-alive feeling”. This suggests that people definitely were using them to masturbate, and they knew that orgasm was good and healthy – provided it wasn’t spoken about publicly. Talk about a worst-kept secret.

The sexual revolution

By the 1970s, the secret was out. Attitudes towards premarital sex had relaxed and some people even began to speak more postively about masturbation. In a 1974 article, sex educator Betty Dodson proposed that women should masturbate as a way to regain the sexual self-knowledge long denied them by society. How? By using a vibrator, of course!

I have found that the vibrator gives me the strongest and most consistent form of stimulation, and it’s especially good for women who have never experienced an orgasm.

As part of her sex education, she initially used an Oaster and a Panasonic Panabrator, before eventually moving to the Hitachi Magic Wand, helping it to become one of the most popular and well-known vibrators of all time.

Back home in Australia, the development of sex shops was well underway in the 70s. Only four years prior in 1966 the first Australian-made vibrator became available. Fashioned by Sydney mechanic Jim Hamill, it was made out of a penis-shaped prosthetic, a slot-car motor, a piece of electrical wire and a Coles-brand Embassy torch – not the most ideal of choices when compared to the magic of the Hitachi.

Thankfully, mass-produced vibrators made it to our shores by the early 70s, assisted by the import of pornographic magazines becoming legal in 1971.

But despite the sexual revolution, masturbation still had a stigma. A 1974 study found that 61% of women survey masturbated, but 25% of them said they felt guilty, perverted or even feared they’d go insane from doing it – a hangover from hysteria, perhaps?

Masturbation finally goes mainstream

While the 70s was certainly when the western world started changing its perception on sex, it wasn’t until the 1980-90s that masturbation – and the use of vibrators – finally got its time in the sun. 

In 1983, sex toy company Vibratex started importing vibrators with internal and external components to the US. Produced in bright colours and animal shapes to get around obscenity laws in Japan (where they were made), each vibrator had a penis-shaped component for internal use, along with different types of ticklers for external stimulation.

There was the Beaver, the Kangaroo, the Turtle – and, of course, the Rabbit. Rising to fame thanks to its guest appearance on Sex and the City with Charlotte in 1998, the Rabbit is one of the best-known vibrators out there, alongside the Magic Wand.

Vibrators today

In the mid-1990s, Australia was home to approximately 250 sex shops. Now it’s closer to 1000, with an average turnover in sex toys of about $50 million a year. And that’s not even factoring in the number of people that prefer to buy their toys online!

It’s fair to say that opinions have certainly relaxed over the years – but not completely, and not enough. In 2010, MTV refused to air a commercial for Trojan’s Vibrating Triphoria unless the word “vibrator” was removed. Three years later in 2013, Woolworths started selling mini vibrators alongside its range of condoms, before hastily removing them from shelves after numerous complaints.

It’s been six years since then, and sentiment is still the same. So why are we still so embarrassed about reaching orgasm with the help of a battery-powered accessory? 

The wrong kind of imagery

Hysteria star Maggie Gyllenhaal thinks it’s a result of being bombarded with the clichéd scene of “putting on a black Victoria’s Secret bra and arching your back. That’s supposed to look like sex. But that doesn’t look like sex for most people.”

This style of scene is prevalent in Hollywood – just take a look at 50 Shades of Grey – and according to sexuality and relationship expert Gabrielle Morrissey, these sorts of images are making Australian women miss out. Many now believe that sex should look like it does in the movies, with the male partner being responsible for delivering sexual satisfaction.

Personally, I think this isn’t only damaging to women who may never allow themselves the opportunity to truly understand their bodies, but to the men feeling the pressure to perform – and to the LGBT community who rarely see their sexuality represented at all.

Sharing new vibrations

One thing that’s become clear during this history lesson: over the past 130 years or so, only a handful of people have wanted to speak openly and honestly about sex, masturbation and vibrators. And of that handful, many take their views to the extreme, which can be intimidating to people who are just dipping their toes in the water.

This is exactly why we’ve created Sneak Peak. We want to be the bridge between both worlds, helping people discover their bodies and improve intimacy in their sexual relationships.

If you like what you’ve read, or you have questions, please don’t hesitate to leave us a comment or get in touch! And if you’re curious to learn more about the vibrators of today, check out our shop where we review a range of makes and models. Let’s start our own sexual revolution!


Further reading
  1. A Short History of the Vibrator by Jen Bell.
  2. Picking Up Good Vibrations by Larissa Dubecki.
  3. Good Vibrations by Samantha Selinger-Morris.
  4. Victorian Vibrators by Chris Wild.
  5. An Original Hitachi Magic Wand by LuckyLucky88.