Throughout much of history, humans were thought to be the only tool users among the animal kingdom. While we now know that’s not true, us homo sapiens have always been particularly innovative in one particular realm of tool use. Since time immemorial, we have been constructing and using tools to help us get off. From the earliest stone dildos to modern app-controlled panty vibes, let’s take a stroll down memory lane to see how far we’ve come in the world of sex toy tech!
In honor of National Sex Toy Day on November 4th, we wanted to take a trip back in time to expose the truly weird origins of some of your favorite pleasure products. Humans figured out long ago that we have certain needs, and sometimes we need a way to fulfil those needs that isn’t attached to our own body.
From the earliest dildos made of stone (ouch!), to the vibrators in disguise of the early 20th century, read on to see how some of your earliest ancestors were getting their self-love on with all sorts of creative purpose-built gadgets! It’s a very good thing that attitudes (and materials) have changed.
Archaeologists and anthropologists have unearthed countless objects that they simply have no way of knowing the purpose of. Without members of that civilization around to tell us what they were used for, or any written records about them these objects often get classified as being for “ritual purposes” and that’s that. There’s a strong likelihood, however, that if the object is shaped like a penis, it’s for exactly the type of “ritual” you think it’s for.
The siltstone phallus, pictured below, was discovered in a cave in Germany in 2005, and they had it carbon dated. It dates back 28,000 years; the oldest object found so far that is believed to be a sexual object. Phallic sculptures and devices of all kinds have been discovered throughout the ages and all over the world. Made of everything from stone to glass and bronze to camel dung. Evidence has also been found that the ancient Greeks may have even fashioned dildos out of bread. And while there is no way of knowing for sure, it is believed that many of these objects, simply because of their shape, were made for precisely what you think they were.
I won’t spend much time on this mention, because it is wholly unsubstantiated by actual physical evidence. But, it’s still a fun story and a decent segue. It is mentioned in several texts, written by scholars & anthropologists studying sexology of the ancient worlds – particularly ancient Egypt – that Queen Cleopatra herself was known to have used a hollowed-out gourd full of live bees as a vibrator. A. GOURD. FULL. OF. BEES. Whether it’s true or not, it sure makes me grateful for my modern bullet vibes. I prefer my sexual pleasure without a side of potentially escaping stinging insects. What can we say, though? Once we discovered that vibration felt awfully good on our genitals, the bar was set. Pretty much the rest of the history of sex toys is defined by enhancing and improving upon the technology of the vibrator.
2nd Century, A.D.
So, we’re glad sex toys became a thing, but why did they become a thing? The truth may be stranger than fiction. Waaaaay back in the 2nd century, anatomist Galen purported that “hysteria”, a supposed illness that affected countless women, was caused by the retention of “female semen”, which would get into the bloodstream and corrupt it. The cure? Release that pent-up sexual energy through “paroxysm”…aka, having an orgasm.
This *cough* official diagnosis was nice to finally have, as “hysterical” women were often seen as crazy and stigmatized to the fringes of society. While there were certainly some cases of actual unknown mental illnesses involved, most women diagnosed with hysteria were actually just sexually frustrated. And if you’re wondering if doctors treated these patients by giving them orgasms…yes, yes they did. But what’s a busy doctor to do when his hands get tired from manually stimulating a woman’s clit until she cums? Enter the first (confirmed, non-bee-based) vibrators.
It was established that rapid pulses or vibrations were the most effective applied motions in bringing a woman to orgasm, so rudimentary hand-crank vibrators were created. These had a simple flat panel you could place on the clitoris…or uhhhh, sore muscle…since they were introduced as body massagers. While looking more like hedonistic egg beaters than the sex toys of today, these “vibrators” were developed and improved upon by countless doctors well into the late 1800s, all in the name of “curing hysteria”. This belief, sadly, lasted well into the 1900s, so women just had to keep being creative…and getting hand cramps…to get their self-pleasure game on.
In possibly the most terrifying-looking entry in the history of sex toys, we give you the steam-powered “Manipulator”. Long before there were sex shops, things were looking more like the shop of horrors with vibration creations like this one. Invented by Dr. George Taylor in 1869. It was made to help “cure hysteria” by bringing a woman to orgasm…without the tiresome labor it would require using one’s hands. It was essentially a purposely inefficient motor…the sloppier the motor, the more it vibrates…powering a dildo on a stick. This little thing puttered along (loudly) until the sexually frustrated woman in need of treatment got her rocks of. She’s cured!
The good news is, if you were being “treated for hysteria” with this torture-chamber looking device, the motor portion was hidden in another room, while just the dildo portion extended through a hole in the wall. While this thrusting, vibrating, steampunk monstrosity certainly got the job done, we’re glad even the most powerful sex machines of today have come a long way. Pun intended.
Electricity becoming more readily available in this era upgraded sex toys…er…personal beauty aids…from the hand-cranked nightmares of decades past. You didn’t have to give yourself a hand cramp cranking until you climaxed. Electric products like “The Polar Cub” were marketed to lonely housewives everywhere. Sex toys were still considered taboo, but these “health aids” were advertised with phrases like, “made by a woman who knows what women need”. Hint…it wasn’t intended for neck massages like it so coyly shows on the box.
Devices like these continued to be developed, improved, and marketed to women well into the 1960s. While the hysteria thing was finally mostly debunked in the early 1900s, it still wasn’t okay for women to just run around saying they masturbated because it feels good, dammit! These mid-century sex toys were advertised as everything from muscle massagers to “blood circulators” to beauty aids and weight loss devices. The best part? They were inexpensive and readily available from your local department store or to order from your favorite catalog.
Japanese company Hitachi releases their “Magic Wand” personal massager. This corded, single-model device was humbly introduced to the US market in 1968 and was advertised as a relaxing massager for your back and other muscles. While early models resembled odd-looking microphones (pictured below), it was quickly discovered that their deep, rumbly vibrations, sturdy construction, and non-stop power could be beneficial for more than just sore muscles.
The Magic Wand got a glow-up over the years, becoming curvier, softer, and more ergonomically comfortable for all body parts. It also quickly earned a reputation as one of the best pleasure products, loved by women of all ages for its ability to deliver the ultimate orgasm. Because of this, Hitachi wanted to distance themselves from the product.
While the 60s and 70s became the “free love” era and masturbation was seen as liberation, sex toys were still very taboo in Japan, where Hitachi was headquartered. Not wanting to be associated with manufacturing the world’s favorite sex toy, they got USA-based Vibratex on board to take over sales and marketing of the coveted original plug-in wand. Hitachi continued to manufacture it, but the Hitachi brand name was removed from the packaging. Eventually, after several evolutions including the Rechargeable version in 2015, the Plus version released in 2019, and the brand new Mini version from 2022, Hitachi & Vibratex continue to give us the modern and still-beloved Magic Wand of today!
In the late 70s and early 80s, you could finally call a vibrator a vibrator and not hide its intended use behind odd health and beauty claims. Sex toys were starting to become more common and less frowned upon by the general public. Enter Vibratex again, ready to give the people what they really want: The Rabbit. Offering both vaginal penetration and clitoral stimulation in one buzzy package, ladies everywhere jumped at the chance to experience an orgasm that only vibrating dual stimulation could provide!
While the iconic ears may seem like just a good shape to stimulate both sides of the clit at once, it was a rabbit for another slightly bizarre reason: Japanese companies were not allowed to make or sell outright sex toys, but if they disguised them as some sort of cute animal, it was A-OK, apparently. Other companies released more sneaky sex toys in the shapes of penguins, dolphins, beavers, and more.
Later in the 80s, Vibratex improved on their own design by adding rotating pearls to the shaft for even more internal stimulation with penetration, and the controls and battery compartments gradually got sleeker and easier to use. All sorts of iconic rabbit vibes have come since the original, and modern versions add even more high-tech features to this classic functional shape. The rabbit vibe isn’t going anywhere!
2022 and Beyond:
So what does the future hold for sex toys? With innovations such as air pulse clitoral stimulation offered by brands like Womanizer, and male masturbators that can preeeeety accurately simulate an amazing BJ, it’s safe to say the sky is the limit. Sex tech companies will continue to research and make the products people really want. Especially as it becomes more and more acceptable to talk about the fact that yes, you use vibrators (over 54% of women across various studies openly admit they have…and the real number is WAY higher!), the possibilities are endless!