Slate has put together a very amusing slide show on the history of vibrators. For centuries, women were treated for “hysteria”, which, as it turns out, was just a glorified term for the expression of female sexual needs outside of the penetration alone paradigm. Touch-starved well-bred Victorian women who weren’t getting off on their husband’s idea of sex, but who were all hot and bothered anyway, with no release (especially when masturbation was unthinkable for women), were often labeled “hysteric” and sent to the doctor’s office for treatment. Treatment was vulvular massage to the point of “paroxysm”, and was often viewed as a lucrative but menial chore by many doctors. Fed up with the time-consuming tedium of stimulating a woman to paroxysm (which could sometimes take over an hour—how dull and difficult!), an enterprising British doctor invented the first vibrator in the 1880s, which mechanized the entire process and made it a whole lot faster, allowing the doctor to relieve more patients in less time. And thus the first female sex toy was born.
It’s a great slide show, check it out. The book mentioned in the slide show (The Technology of Orgasm : “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, by Rachel P. Maines) looks pretty interesting, as well.