Cover: Pegasus Books.

Ever wondered about those early vibrator ads from decades past that pointedly do not mention sexual pleasure? Idly asked yourself how the wives of 19th century ship captains entertained themselves? Then you are the target audience for Hallie Lieberman’s Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy.

Out this week, Buzz makes a wonderful companion to another recent release that appeared earlier in the fall on this blog, Lynn Comella’s Vibrator Nation. That book takes a more ethnographic tack and focuses specifically on feminist sex toy stores, delving into the histories and approaches of Eve’s Garden, Good Vibrations, and Babeland. Lieberman, on the other hand, casts a broader net. While she devotes time to groundbreaking women such as Dell Williams, Betty Dodson, and Joani Blank, Lieberman also ranges from Reuben Sturman, a more stereotypical purveyor of pornography and “marital aids,” to people like Gosnell Duncan, whose pioneering work on silicon dildos grew out of his disability activism, and Duane Colglazier and Bill Rifkin, founders of The Pleasure Chest, two gay men who rethought what an adult store could look like and in so doing, helped lay the groundwork for a more woman-friendly adult novelty business. Oftentimes it’s a downright heartwarming read, a chronicle of people who genuinely wanted to bring pleasure to their fellow humans.  

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Lieberman’s story largely takes place over the course of the second half of the 20th century and is tightly tied to the sexual revolution. But she sets the scene by looking further back—which, when you are researching sex toys, is easier said than done. Here is a glimpse inside her process, during a visit to the Smithsonian.

Excerpted with permission from Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy by Hallie Lieberman.

Of the many regions I researched, the most difficult place to trace a culture’s history with sex toys was, surprisingly enough, America. Books on the history of pornography basically ignored sex toys. I searched all the scholarly literature with little luck, aside from a few paragraphs in an article in an issue of the Journal of Popular Culture from the 1970s. If there was a version of shunga here, I wasn’t able to find it.

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I was thrilled then when I came across Andrea Tone’s book on contraceptives, Devices & Desires. There, on page 14, was a mention that rubber goods dealers in the late 19th century who manufactured condoms also sometimes manufactured dildos. I was ecstatic. This finding spurred me to investigate further and apply to the Lemelson Center Fellowship at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where I knew they had an extensive collection of trade catalogs by companies, such as BF Goodrich, that made a variety of rubber goods.

When I arrived in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2012 and entered the Smithsonian, I was in awe. It housed Dorothy’s ruby slippers, a full 19th-century train car, the original Kermit the Frog—and a hidden collection of 19th-century rectal dilators and 20th-century vibrator advertisements. The archives I sought were on the first floor, in a room with a giant glass window so guests (frequently with children in tow) could peer in and watch the scholars at work. As I began digging through the archives on the first day, I felt a little uneasy as groups of people gazed at me. If only they knew what I was studying, I thought.

Scouring the archives led me to discover new sex toys I’d never heard of. One of the first things I found was a catalog for the Electro-Thermo Dilator, a turn-of-the-20th-century device that supposedly offered “an improved method of administering electricity to the system through the rectum, at the same time dilating the sphincter muscles.” American innovation at its finest.

One day a curator suggested I visit the upper floors of the museum, where all the collections that are not on display are housed. She told me that the National Museum of American History was nicknamed America’s attic because the Smithsonian squirreled away their hundreds of thousands of artifacts in temperature-controlled rooms on the upper floors of the building, most never getting their moment in the museum limelight. She had seen things up there that vaguely looked like sex toys, she told me. But she wasn’t sure if that’s what they were. As I rode in the elevator with the curator and the elevator attendant, I tried to manage my expectations, as images of drawers full of century-old dildos raced through my mind.

We arrived on the sixth floor, and she escorted me to a thick set of double doors, waved her employee ID, and pushed through them. As I entered the room, the first thing I noticed was the freezing-cold air and a giant round metal machine, which she soon informed me was a Bakelizer, a vestige from the 1930s when the thermosetting plastic Bakelite was the height of luxury. The room looked like a well-kept thrift store, with shelf after shelf of curios: celluloid billiard balls that could explode if they got too hot; brightly colored plastic vases; an Art Deco Bakelite toaster. Beneath the shelves were drawers filled with a variety of smaller things: little plastic brooches, poker chips, figurines. Every time she opened a drawer I would feel a twinge of excitement, filled with hope that the phallic shapes within the drawer, were, in fact, dildos. We were so primed for finding sex toys that we would excitedly examine anything that looked vaguely penis-like, only to discover, with dismay, that it was just a Bakelite flashlight. (Only later did I discover that, coincidentally enough, Bakelite was used in the manufacture of vibrators.)

After almost half an hour of searching to no avail, I was shivering, and I felt bad that the curator had to stick around for what seemed like a fruitless search. Then she opened a drawer, and I saw it: a black rectal dilator so shiny that it looked as if it had come off of Doc Johnson’s assembly line that same day. I shrieked. She got excited too. The dilator, which was from the early 20th century, was beautiful. It had a curved triangular head that looked like a cross between a penis head and a Christmas lightbulb. It was a Young’s Dilator, and I soon found out everything I could about it.

The device in question. Patented in 1892, Young’s dilators were some of the most widely advertised rectal dilators available. A Gift of M E Vaill, Division of Medicine & Science, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Patented in 1892, Young’s dilators were some of the most widely advertised rectal dilators, with ads that appeared in both medical journals and popular health magazines in the early 1900s. Made of rubber, the dilators came in a kit of four different sizes, so users could increase the size as their rectum supposedly gained tone. The dilators were sold as treatments for a range of conditions, some of which seemed logical (such as constipation and enlarged prostates) and others that seemed completely off-the-wall (such as asthma). But it was Young’s claim that his rectal dilators—in conjunction with his urethral tubes—could cure men of masturbation that was the most absurd. How exactly placing a phallic device in your rectum could, as Young said, “restore these sexual wrecks of humanity to a life of happiness” was unclear to me. There was doubt in the medical community at the time as well. While a few doctors were swayed by Young’s arguments, others saw through them. The editors of an 1893 edition of the Medical Review were especially skeptical about Young’s claim that dilating the rectum could cure insanity. “Why then do these men not apply the dilators to himself or to each other?” the journal’s editors wrote.

The Young’s dilator led me to fall down the rabbit hole of rubber-sex-toy history. I discovered that the Young’s rectal dilator was one of several dilators produced soon after the rubber-sex-toy industry began in earnest in the mid-1800s, thanks to Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock. They discovered rubber vulcanization in 1844, which stabilized rubber, preventing it from melting when it came into contact with body heat. Other devices were manufactured by respected rubber companies, including BF Goodrich. I found that most of the early rubber phallic devices were like Young’s in that they were not usually sold as sex toys. Along with the rectal dilators, there were the vaginal dilators that were used to cure vaginismus (“an involuntary, spasmodic closure of the mouth of the vagina”) that prevented intercourse. I also discovered that not all the dilators sold at the time were made of rubber; some were made of metal or glass and contained a plunger mechanism at the bottom. They looked nearly identical to the ejaculating Asian dildos, except the American dildos were sold as rectal irrigators—almost like enemas.

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Although I was able to find sex toys disguised as medical devices, finding sex toys that were sold as sex toys was more difficult. I read everything I could about the sex industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries, hoping to find a lead. Most scholars wrote only about prostitution and the erotic books trade. Sex toys usually weren’t mentioned; in the event they were, it was an aside, with no details provided. But one author, Donna Dennis, mentioned that there was a special type of catalog full of sex toys that was sold during this era: sporting goods catalogs. In her citation she noted that there was one housed at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. I had my next trip.

Young’s Dilators were sold via ads that appeared in both medical journals and popular health magazines in the early 1900s. Here is an ad that appeared in Health in 1904.

As soon as the librarian brought out the Grand Fancy Bijou Catalogue of the Sporting Man’s Emporium from 1870, I flipped through the pages in a furious hunt for dildos, my adrenaline spiking. Then, on page 7, I found the jackpot: an ad for a “Dildoe or Artificial Penis.” In front of my eyes was the first catalog from the 19th century featuring a sex toy sold without euphemisms. I was disappointed that there wasn’t a drawing of the dildo, but the description gave a good approximation: “This instrument is manufactured of white rubber, and is a wonderful facsimile of the natural penis of man. For reserved females it is a happy and harmless substitute for the natural ‘Champion of Women’s Rights.’” I envisioned a blazingly white bratwurst in my mind. The most interesting thing about the ad was that it was directed toward men. It was a sign that some American men weren’t afraid of dildos at that time; they were buying them for their partners. There was some reassuring language in the description: the “dildoe” was “harmless” and the penis was a “Champion of Women’s Rights” (whatever that meant).

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A few more pages and I found another ad—this time for the “French Yarnal; or Ladies’ Tickler.” Ticklers were usually made of rubber and fit on the head of the penis, like a condom; other ticklers were like cock rings with clitoral stimulators. The description made it clear that the tickler was intended just as much for a man’s sexual pleasure as it is for a woman’s: The catalogue assured prospective buyers that the tickler would “cause the lady to come to Time [aka orgasm] and make her do a large share of the labor, thereby giving much more pleasure and enjoyment to the gentleman, as it would be impossible for the lady to remain still while one is being used.” The description also assured men that the tickler “will cause the lady to love and stick with him who has first used it with her, as the sensation be the same as that felt the first time the act was performed in her life.” Although the Tickler’s purpose was supposedly to give women orgasms, it was sold ultimately as a device that benefited men’s enjoyment during sex. (The way we’ve sold sex toys seems not to have changed too much from the 19th to the 21st centuries.)

I wondered if any other 19th-century catalogs like this existed. I imagined men stashing the catalogs under their beds, hiding them from wives and moms. Who would think to save a sex-toy catalog for posterity? What had happened to the other sex-toy catalogs?

I asked my advisor, and he suggested that I look through the reports of 19th-century vice societies held at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Vice societies assisted in the arrest of citizens for selling so-called obscenity and kept detailed records of sellers of obscene goods. They must have gone after sex toys, he said. I was skeptical. Lots had been written about the society reports because they are some of the only sources on pornography, prostitution, and America’s sexual culture from the 19th century. I figured that if sex toys were in these reports, someone would have written about them before. But still I went and looked.

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The vice society report was housed in the Ralph Ginzburg Papers of the Wisconsin Historical Society. A publisher of Eros magazine, Ginzburg had been charged with violating obscenity laws in the 1960s, and he decided to investigate the history of these laws in the United States in preparation for a book that he never ended up writing. He wanted to understand how the United States had come to be so obsessed with regulating sex. I immediately felt a kinship with him.

The records Ginzburg had collected were those of a vice society that started out in the early 1860s as a committee within the New York Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), a committee looking to ferret out commercial sex products that were pouring into the streets in spite of a state anti-obscenity law. I soon learned that my advisor was right: It wasn’t just pornographic books and pictures that the committee were after. They also were appalled by something not covered under the anti-obscenity laws—a group of products they called “immoral articles,” an umbrella term that covered sex toys and contraceptives. “Indecent or immoral” articles were “a fruitful source of demoralization and crime,” and the law needed to encompass them, the New York YMCA argued. In 1868, they got their way. The law was expanded.

Via the New York Public Library’s digital collections.

Around the time that the New York YMCA was helping the state crack down on obscenity, a portly dry goods salesman named Anthony Comstock was involved in a similar mission of his own. He was determined to track down an erotica dealer who had sold his friend pornography, which Comstock believed had sent his friend into a downward spiral, leading to suicide. In the process of looking for vengeance, he came across an enormous underground web of porn, contraceptives, and sex toys. Enraged, he began to scour New York City for the supposed contraband, and he reported his findings to the police, who arrested the transgressors. In 1872, he joined forces with the New York YMCA and helped create their Commission for the Suppression of Vice. They believed that masturbation was dangerous and that sex for pleasure, without the goal of procreation, was a sin. Comstock’s ultimate aim was to prevent masturbation, which he believed was morally and physically damaging. Comstock wrote that, “If almost all of America’s young men are addicted to this lethal practice, what hope remains for America?”

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That same year, a federal obscenity act was created, and vice organizations believed that they were beginning to win the battle against obscenity. But when Comstock tried to get a porn dealer prosecuted under the law, he failed. He decided the law needed to be strengthened and expanded to incorporate rubber goods, including contraceptives and sex toys.

With the help of a lawyer, Comstock drafted a bill that was stricter and more specific, and he lobbied Congress for it. To ensure it would pass, he arrived in Washington armed with what he believed to be foolproof ammunition: an abundance of obscene rubber goods and pornography that he had collected while working as a vice reformer at the YMCA. Apparently this technique worked. Lawmakers were so upset by the mountains of sex products that they passed the bill, which made it illegal to mail any “obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy” material through the mail, including printed works and “any cast, instrument, or other article of an immoral nature” and any contraceptives or abortifacients. The possible penalty was a $100 to $5,000 fine, one to ten years of hard labor—or both.

Comstock was also given the position of special agent in the United States Post Office “with power to confiscate immoral matter in the mails and arrest those sending it” and was appointed secretary to the YMCA’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV). Within a year, he had seized “60,300 articles made of rubber for immoral purposes, and used by both sexes.” While many of these articles were condoms and diaphragms, some were sex toys. Comstock did not just arrest sex-toy makers; he also destroyed all their equipment and their entire stock of products.

A 1912 advertisement
for Hamilton Beach’s New Life Vibrator, where some run-of-the- mill ailments—like indigestion— are made to look sexy. Reprinted from The Des Moines News.

Comstock didn’t succeed in destroying the whole sex-toy industry, but he did destroy the livelihoods of many people who participated in it. He also effectively drove the sex-toy industry underground. Ads for sex toys still filled the backs of men’s sporting journals, but they referred to dildos as “Old Maid’s Friends” and called artificial vaginas “Bachelor’s Friends.”

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The period that Comstock worked for the federal government also gave rise to one of the most popular sex toys of the modern era: the electric vibrator. What did Comstock and the other censors think of vibrators? The answer was they didn’t worry about them at all. I could find nothing in the records of the NYSSV that showed that they were concerned specifically with vibrators, although Comstock did sometimes coerce newspapers into discontinuing their “massage and electrical advertisements.” Vibrators weren’t specifically written into obscenity laws at this time probably because companies marketed them as medical and household appliances. Nearly every vibrator company manufactured phallic attachments, which would have been considered obscene if sold as dildos. Nevertheless, Comstock let vibrator advertisements run freely.