Timeline: Female Hysteria and the Sex Toys Used to Treat It

Vibrators, douches, and pelvic massage: Curing crazy ladies for centuries—one “hysterical paroxysm” at a time.

French pelvic douche of about 1860 from Fleury, reproduced from Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948)

The new film Hysteria tells a fictionalized account of the invention of the vibrator in Victorian-era England. But just how historically accurate is it? Surprisingly close. As historian Rachel P. Maines points out in her book “The Technology of Orgasm,” the symptoms of “hysteria”—a catch-all diagnosis for a slew of vexing lady problems that dates back a couple millennia—included fainting, anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness and “a tendency to cause trouble for others.” (Two other symptoms suspiciously associated with hysteria? Erotic fantasy and excessive vaginal lubrication.) And since at least the second century, a good orgasm, or rather “hysterial paroxysm,” was considered a suitable treatment—at least when practiced by a medical professional. Check out our illustrated history of hysteria—and the early sex toys used to treat it—from the time of Hippocrates to today.

For more information on the fascinating history of the vibrator, check out Rachel Maines’ book “The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria,’ the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction” and the Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum.

Open-source timeline tool by Balance Media and WNYC/John Keefe. Try it yourself here!

THE BIG QUESTION...

as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot. That's what Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein tackles in her annual December column—"Billionaires Are Not the Answer"—about the state of journalism and our plans for the year ahead.

We can't afford to let independent reporting depend on the goodwill of the superrich: Please help Mother Jones build an alternative to oligarchy that is funded by and answerable to its readers. Please join us with a tax-deductible, year-end donation so we can keep going after the big stories without fear, favor, or false equivalency.

THE BIG QUESTION...

as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot.

Please read our annual column about the state of journalism and Mother Jones' plans for the year ahead, and help us build an alternative to oligarchy by supporting our people-powered journalism with a year-end gift today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.