Take a guess at what the vibrator was originally marketed for, and get ready to discover this untold history. The true history of sex toys might surprise you because original purposes were for anything but sex—sex toys have thankfully come a long way. Today, we’re taking a deep dive down where commonly utilized and enjoyed devices come from. And, it’s not what you think!
A stone-cold history of dildos
The oldest dildo is 28,000 years old, made from stone. It’s 8 inches long and 3 centimeters wide and was found buried in a German mountain range. Thankfully, we’ve come leaps and bounds when it comes to sourcing materials for sex toys. Modern toys implement materials that are durable yet more human-like to the touch. We won’t be getting any ideas from stone-crafted sex toys except admiration for making do with what you have on hand.
A vibrator was intended for what now?
The vibrator was invented for reasons that may surprise you. In the late 1800s, a British doctor named Joseph Mortimer Granville used vibrators to stimulate the nerves, and not genitally. Granville had the idea that when stimulating the nerves, vibrators could cure common ailments such as headaches, irritability, or indigestion. Also? Granville refused to use vibrators on women and only used them on men.
Like Granville’s theories, Dr. Macaura’s “Blood Circulator” was a vibrator invented as a pain treatment. The vibrator covers the body part in need, and one had to wind the handle to cause the vibration. Battery-powered, who? You can snag a look at that vibrator here.
You might be thinking, okay, get to the point where vibrators were used to treat hysteria. If you’re new to the term, hysteria is a mental condition wrongly attributed to women who sought treatment for medical issues. Headaches? Stomach aches? Blame it on hysteria. It’s important to note that hysteria is now a defunct term and always existed without any medical basis, and female hysteria is a myth.
There’s not a lot of evidence to prove that vibrators were used to treat hysteria—this was largely a hypothesis.
Vibrators were used and marketed for just about any medical ailment you can think of: sore feet, congestion, and back pain, to name a few.
So, when did people start seeing the masturbatory potential in a vibrator? Many historians and doctors note that it’s impossible people didn’t see this potential. Ads in the 1900s implemented euphemisms for the vibrator’s uses, such as saying it was “great for a woman’s body, all over.” In the 1950s, Sears ran an ad for their vibrator that would give you a “great to be alive feeling.”
It wasn’t until the late 1900s that vibrators began to be marketed for their masturbatory qualities. As you might imagine, the FDA began cracking down on their catch-all use for medical issues and found that these claims for medical cures were largely unfounded.
We’ve come a long way from skirting around the real use for vibrators and now place them on the pedestal they belong to—they are a miraculous sex toy and revolutionize masturbation and orgasms for many. Oh, and now, you don’t have to wind the handle to turn it on—there’s a battery-powered switch for that.
Butt plugs: the cure to insanity
Like vibrators, the history of butt plugs also stems from curious medical claims. The history of butt plugs can be traced back to the late 1800s (this was evidently a great time period for medical quackery.) An early butt plug was Dr. Young’s Rectal Dilators’. They were sold as a set of four, with each one increasing in size. These historical butt plugs were made from hard rubber. These butt plugs were initially marketed as a tool for constipation, but Dr. Young also claimed that these rectal dilators could cure insanity, too. If you weren’t using them for insanity, they could cure hemorrhoids, acne, and even bad breath. Don’t worry, the FDA later ruled that these claims for cures were untrue.
Butt plugs started their claim to fame for pleasure in the late 1900s, most likely a sign of shifting cultural attitudes toward sex. Now, butt plugs come in various shapes and materials like silicone, glass, and stainless steel.
Lube made from yams, seaweed, and this common pantry ingredient
Have you ever turned to your nightstand at a bottle of lube and thought, “who invented this stuff in the first place?” Lube’s history dates back to 350 BC from the Greeks who used olive oil, and this ancient self-pleasuring technique is still used today. If you’d like to do as the ancient Greeks did, make sure you’re not pairing any kind of oil-based lube with latex, as oil degrades latex and can lead to tearing. Thankfully, we now have a plethora of different options with all sorts of ingredients.
If you’ve ever watched the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, co-lead Frankie Bergstein creates a lube made from her at-the-time farmer boyfriend Jacob’s yams. Any substance to the whole “yam lube” thing? Actually, there is!
In the 1600s, spanning to the 1800s in Japan, people used a substance for sex and masturbation called tororo-jiru, made from mashed yams. Carrageenan from red seaweed was also extracted to produce a slippery substance for lube.
Lube joined the ranks of sex and pleasure aids marketed to have medical benefits—K-Y Jelly was initially marketed as a surgical aid. Similar to both vibrators and butt plugs, personal lubricant boomed in sales and marketing for its intended purpose in the late 90s, thanks to the sexual revolution.
In retrospect, the history of sex toys is not only immensely entertaining, but it’s also incredibly resourceful. People used available natural materials for sex and self-pleasuring, and these innovations date back to pre-historic times. It goes to show, people have always prioritized pleasure, and, if there’s a will, there’s a way.
We no longer live in a world where we need to purchase toys under false marketing for medical devices—we can simply buy them for the sole purpose of pleasure. How far we’ve come!