Antique Detwiller vibrator

Gas-Powered Vibrator Finds Home in Good Vibes’ Antique Sex Toy Museum by Alexis Coe

Most curators in San Francisco’s arts community have degrees in disciplines such as paintings or textiles, but Carol Queen is the first sexologist/curator I’ve encountered. Queen started working at Good Vibrations while completing a doctorate in human sexuality; she stayed on with the company to be not only its staff sexologist but also the curator of the store’s Antique Vibrator Museum.

LR_DetwillerVibe_2

The acquisition budget is tied to fortunes of the company, which were in good shape when Queen recently spotted an antique Detwiller Vibrator on eBay. The vibrator, patented in 1906, was secured with a bid of $204.29. While the museum has a vast collection of vibrators from the late 1800s through the 1970s, this is the first pneumatic vibrator Queen has found.

“The literature on antique vibrators covered steam, electric motor, and hand-crank types,” she says, “but when you think of gas powered items, tools come to mind, not body-care objects.”

Vibrators were introduced in the 19th century as a medical tool to treat female hysteria, a diagnosis that enjoyed significant attention in the medical community. Recognizable symptoms included insomnia, shortness of breath, and obstreperous behavior. Experts concluded that hysteria was the result of a womb in active revolt against sexual deprivation.

Historically, women diagnosed with hysteria received treatment directly from their doctors in a medical office. With the patient typically reclined on the examining table, a doctor would administer a “pelvic massage” until the patient reached “hysterical paroxysm,” or orgasm. Doctors found this process exhausting; it demanded manual dexterity and, because they had to tirelessly work until completion, it often wreaked havoc on their schedule.

The introduction of the vibrator was welcomed by the medical community and women alike. Hysteria, a 2011 cinematic retelling of Mortimer Granville’s invention of the first vibrator starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. The movie features vibrators from Good Vibrations’ own collection. See our post from September on that. When the portable device was introduced, it was widely manufactured and marketed as a cure-all for women, rendering it an essential home appliance.

“By one estimate, there were more of them in American homes than electric toasters,” Queen says, citing research circa 1910.

But how many vibrators were gas-powered? Queen suspects few — no one knows for sure because of the scarcity of research and surviving materials — but she encourages visitors to consider “what it would take to get a gas-powered item going at one’s bedside.”

While the American Psychiatric Association had debunked the existence of hysteria by 1952, the vibrator continued to be advertised as a health aid. Today, electric vibrators are marketed as massagers.

The Antique Vibrator Museum is located at Good Vibrations, 1620 Polk (at Sacramento). S.F. Admission is free.

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