The inventor of the first electrical vibrator, doctor Joseph Mortimer Granville, called his device “Granville’s Hammer” — and if that’s not obviously named by a man I don’t know what is. It was for male pain relief; he expressly didn’t want women to use it. “I have avoided, and shall continue to avoid the treatment of women by percussion,” he wrote in 1883, “simply because I do not wish to be hoodwinked, and help to mislead others, by the vagaries of the hysterical state.”
Joke’s on you, Joseph. We’re all masturbating just to spite you now.
But that was the beginning of it — hand-cranked vibrators were out, electric vibrators were in. Please note there is no evidence that doctors in Victorian times used vibrators on “hysterical” patients to induce orgasm — I know we all loved that story, but it’s an unsubstantiated hypothesis. It is true, though, that vibration was en vogue, hailed as a miraculous cure-all. It was like manual massage, but easier! More exciting still: vibrators were powered by electricity, a mysterious force that was also being lauded up the wazoo for its supposed therapeutic powers.
It was a booming time for quack medical products, such as Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset and the product most coveted by serial killers, the Electric Flesh Brush (neither of which were actually electrified — only magnetized). Dr. Young’s Rectal Dilators claimed to cure most anything, from constipation to insanity, boasting that the rubber devices would “reach the vital spot.” That’s what I’m gonna call the prostate from now on. Dr. Sanden’s Electric Belt, with a looped electrode for sending an electric current through the penis, was billed as “a never failing cure for the weakness of men.” Clearly that didn’t work.
Then again, people were willing to try anything in those days before modern sex pills, including wearing a radium-soaked object against their testicles in hopes of improving sexual function.
The vibrator was just one gizmo among many that promised revitalized health from the comfort of your own home. That’s why it wasn’t unusual to see bombastic, full-page advertisements for them, complete with testimonials from doctors and consumers alike. “I have three of your Vibrators in use in my office” reads one quote, which almost certainly was written by a male doctor but I like to imagine a very woke 1913 businesswoman saying it instead. If the ads were to be believed, this vibrator thing was the only health treatment you’d ever need, for any and all maladies.
Just how many people were eschewing the list of ailments and placing the vibrator against the one spot not marked on the anatomy chart — the genitals — is unknown. But A.C. Gilbert, a magician and holder of the world record for chin-ups, knew the truth. (Yeah, sure, he was also an entrepreneur who invented the Erector Set, but why lead with that?)
Hoping to get even richer with his successful childrens’ toy company, Gilbert decided to add a vibrator to his offerings (I swear, it made sense at the time), and he was apparently under no illusions about its potential for sexual application. According to his biographer, he tested his newly-patented gadget with local friends to get feedback. “All couples have admitted that their sexual relationships have immeasurably improved,” Gilbert wrote. “Husbands feel proud of their new ability to satisfy their wives . . . The wife is now extremely happy and content with marital life. The husband is proud of his new prowess.”
Dude. Can we get 2019 husbands on board like this?
Polar Cub Electric Vibrator (1925)
This is A.C. Gilbert’s creation, the Polar Cub Electric Vibrator No. B87, and it’s nearly 100 years old. This vibrator is so ancient it was manufactured before any of my grandparents were born, which delights me terribly. The box is in shambles — on the front, a cute flapper holds the vibrator to her throat with a mischievous glint in her eye. A thin, fragile slip of paper serves as the original receipt, dated June 15th, 1925, in the amount of $2.95. I love this vibrator with every fiber of my being. Just thinking about how extremely not alive I was at that time is exciting to me.
And of course, I’m going to have an orgasm with this thing. An orgasm that transcends time. That’s what all of this is about.
Using an antique vibrator is a sensory adventure. When I open the Polar Cub’s box, I’m greeted by a stale, intoxicating musky aroma. The vibrator itself is surprisingly small and lightweight, especially for something made of metal, and comes with three attachments that screw onto the tip. It was coated in a thin layer of dust when I got it, which I gently wiped off with a baby wipe. “It makes no particular difference which applicator is used in vibrator treatment as long as the effect is pleasant,” the manual helpfully explains. “Any applicator that irritates or causes a disagreeable feeling should not be used.” An enclosed notecard reminds me to oil the vibrator regularly.
The Polar Cub does not have a traditional power plug. Instead, it screws into a lightbulb socket.
In the ’20s, electricity was not standardized yet, and apparently some homes were wired from the attic and had light sockets hanging down. Etched into the metal of the vibe is “110V,” not exactly the 120 volts household sockets in the U.S. utilize today. I might get electrocuted or burned by a flying spark while using this vibrator, but you know, what’s life without a little bit of danger?
So I screwed the Polar Cub Electric Vibrator into a lightbulb socket and draped a dental dam over my vulva. The white cup attachment wouldn’t stay on the vibe, so I used the flat black one instead. Then I slowly, trepidatiously, switched my lamp — now my vibrator — on.
The vibrator sprung to life, its tip spinning like a drill. It produced a grinding noise as it whirred, and I immediately caught wind of a sharp, warm mechanical smell. Time was of the essence, so I didn’t waste one second before placing somebody’s great-great-grandmother’s vibrator against my clit.
Accordingly, I masturbated to the oldest porn I could get my grubby hands on: a compilation of lesbian shorts from 1920-1960. Some films were accompanied by an upbeat score; others by nothing more than the incredibly arousing rattling sound of film. I watched such wholesome moments as naked women throwing a ball back and forth and a woman rowing a boat with the camera pointed scandalously up her skirt. Lots of coyness, writhing, jaunty hats, and glorious glorious bushes.
Then I did it. I had an orgasm with a vibrator that screws into a lightbulb socket. Several, actually, over the course of the next several days. And I lived to tell. It wasn’t difficult, because the Polar Cub Electric Vibrator is quite powerful. Putting aside the disconcerting smell and distracting noise, I can see why it improved all those marriages — it’s effective. Even today, 94 years after it was originally purchased.
And, you will be happy to know, I have now oiled the vibrator as directed. I got some sewing machine oil and asked my dad to show me how to properly oil it. Only 1-2 drops per hole, he advised me, following the diagram. We also turned the vibrator on and I asked if I should be concerned about the mechanical odor. “Nah,” he said, holding it up to his nose. “I have a really old dremel tool that smells like this.” Classic father/daughter bonding.
Whoever owned the Polar Cub before me was very dedicated to the practice of vibratory massage, since it came with a 1917 book of in-depth vibratory techniques for over 100 afflictions — from baldness and asthma to epilepsy and melancholia. Apparently a vibrator can even help with bust development (“same treatment as for face development, but do not slap the breasts”), change of life (basically a back massage), bed wetting (which instructs you to vibrate your child’s spine), and “infantile paralysis” — also known as polio.
So I can cancel my $460/month health insurance now, yeah?
Oster Massagett (1966)
If the Polar Cub Electric Vibrator was a product of its time, the Oster Massagett (yes, that Oster) model 237-02 is unabashedly from the ’60s. Shaped like a bar of gold or a tiny toaster, the Massagett attaches to the back of your hand with a series of metal straps accompanied by a cushy layer of foam to protect your precious knuckles. On the box, the flapper has evolved into a coiffed, bra-sporting babe. Its tagline? “For that feeling of well being.” Nice.
The Massagett comes with a one-year warranty, which unfortunately expired about 50 years ago, and a list of Oster Authorized Service locations, including a Portland address that’s only 2 miles from me — if only it hadn’t been replaced by a brewery by now. So I guess I can’t waltz in there, plop the Massagett on the counter, and ask them to service it. I mean, I could, but I shouldn’t.
At least it doesn’t require regular oiling.
“Massage can be applied over clothing,” the Massagett’s cheery, purple-hued manual advises, “but it is most effective when applied directly to the body.” There is a six-step process for facial massage, which seems excessive, and then my personal favorite: GUM MASSAGE. When I showed the Massagett to my dad, he lit up and said they use vibrators like that for neck and shoulder massage at a barbershop in town. (He loves the massage, but doesn’t go there anymore because they charge too much for haircuts.)
The day I got the Massagett, I took a particular interest in the (original?) price tag sticker on the side of the box, which had a logo that read VM and a cost of $16.34. I wanted to know where this vibrator was purchased, and when.
I voiced this desire to my partner who was sitting beside me at the time, and he immediately grabbed his laptop and got to work. Starting with Wikipedia’s list of defunct department stores, he found Valu-Mart, a chain of discount stores in Oregon and Washington. The eBay seller I bought the vibe from was in Spokane, so this lined up. Then, Kynan hit the jackpot: a copy of the Spokane Daily Chronicle from 1966 showing the matching VM font from the price sticker. (A paper from 1965 shows a different font, as does one from 1967.)
Yes, we squealed. Who doesn’t love an internet hunt with a satisfying ending? We’re like Nev and Max up in here!
Knowing the Massagett was purchased locally should’ve endeared me to it, but in actuality I hated using it. Its heft is endlessly palpable as it perches atop my hand, and when the vibration is switched on… oh lordy. It’s loud and grating, and it reverberates through me. Top heavy as the Massagett is, it kinda holds on for dear life, even if I tip my hand downward, like toward my nether regions.
An hour into the porn, I spotted the first sex toy. Or I thought I did. It turned out to be a banana. But it was followed soon after by an actual dildo, a dildo used as a strap-on no less! Dildos were also attached to pillows and thrust by hand. My favorite scene was one of this slinky lady, starting with solo masturbation and later calling a friend to come over and get fucked. Goals.
I guess the Polar Cub spoiled me, with its straightforward and sensical design. The Massagett, meanwhile, wants to be my new robot overlord. Its vibration is low and rumbly, but completely inscrutable. Surely some is transferring into my fingers, but my brain can’t separate that sensation from the OVERALL JOSTLE of my hand. The only orgasm I had with the Massagett was from flipping it upside down and holding the corner of it against my clit.
Much like ill-advised modern vibrators, the Massagett only serves to complicate the process, not enhance it. I asked my partner to put it on his hand and show me what it would be like if I could experience only the genital vibration. He pressed his quaking palm against my vulva. It was much more pleasurable, but he got frustrated and switched it off after less than a minute. “That’s fucked up,” he complained. “I couldn’t feel anything my fingers were doing.”
Suffice to say this vibrator isn’t going to save any marriages any time soon.
Vanguard Vibro-Massager (1950s)
Then, somewhere in Japan, the Vanguard Vibro-Massager happened. It has a unique four-point massaging shape and it comes with the coolest pale blue zipper case in the history of the planet. The box is simplistic, with the tagline “the most famous electric,” and its manual is nothing more than a sheet of paper, with no special massage techniques at all.
I can’t tell you much about the Vibro-Massager’s origins, or even what year it’s from. I noticed a very similar toy from 1962 at the Antique Vibrator Museum, so I reached out to curator Carol Queen for her opinion. We compared the patent numbers on our two vibes, and the numbers on hers were higher. So mine is likely from the 1950s.
Masturbating with the Vibro-Massager made me wish I had that dental dam harness, because the intense vibration caused the dam to bunch up wildly on my vulva. But I’m absolutely never putting those stinky rubber attachments against my actual body! The foam attachment is alright — it reminds me of the Eroscillator — but I actually prefer the cup one. I use it sideaways, allowing the rim to flutter against my clit.
With the Vibro-Massager, I have the choice between low and high. Such luxury! An oddly-placed dial on the side toggles between the two, with an unfortunate “off” position between them which briefly ruins the mood. The motor is buzzy, but the vibration strength makes up for it, kinda.
The Vibro-Massager is a fine toy, but it’s almost too fine. At this point, if it isn’t impossible to orgasm with or doesn’t plague me with the pervasive sense that anything could go wrong at any moment, I’m bored. I’m not transported back in time far enough. I want to feel the struggles of the era, not the echoes of the modern day. And I want my hand to smell like grandma’s closet afterward.
What I didn’t mention earlier is that just a few moments after my dad helped me oil my Polar Cub Electric Vibrator, it broke. It was more feeble than I’d realized — the lightbulb plug had become loose and the wiring lost connection. My dad tried to solder it back together, because he is a hero, but it wouldn’t take. So I’m very sorry, Mabel or Edith or Henry or whoever owned this vibrator back in 1925. I didn’t exactly want that authentic of an experience, but it’s okay. There’s something poetic about the fact that the vibrator lasted nearly 100 years before dying, unceremoniously, in my father’s hands.
At least I got a few orgasms out of it first.