Recent Acquisitions: Antique Vibrators Cure Tuberculosis and Make Your Boobs Bigger

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Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds every other Friday.

Good Vibrations is a chain store best-known for being a purveyor of sex toys, but few realize that the Polk Street location is home to their Antique Vibrator Museum. Curator Carol Queen is always adding to the collection, including the most recent addition: A 1914 booklet from the Arnold Massage Vibrator Company. I e-mailed with Queen about about the 64-page booklet.

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How did Good Vibes come to acquire the Arnold booklet?

The booklet was part of our eBay acquisition project as we got ready to open the Antique Vibrator Museum a year ago. You may remember that this project was timed to coincide with Good Vibrations' 25th anniversary, and we wanted to bring in some unusual items that our customers and friends hadn't seen before, and to round out the collection. This was one of those -- and I'm afraid I'm not certain about its provenance, but we got a few ads and other paper item from an antique paper dealer, and I am guessing this was from that purveyor.

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Do you have anything like it in the collection?

Vibrator companies didn't all publish things like this, but a few did. One firm actually published an entire hard-cover book: Health and How to Get It. We do have a copy of that on display at the museum, and it is very comparable to this in terms of the claims it makes and its style. This is just more concise.

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What are your favorite pages?

I love the cover and the title page, with its satisfied-looking woman. Page 2, the list of ailments, is pretty great as well! Page 9, with its Mr. Science tone, is charming, and I like the reassuring text. And of course on page 31 the young lady developing her bust seems *very* pleased with her treatment. Finally, the "centerfold," with the vibrators depicted, is wonderful. Page 42 addresses female troubles -- except sexual ones!

Who bought the vibrator in 1914, and where did people procure such an item?

Most likely the consumer would have been an adult woman in the U.S. who got the vibrator as a health-maintenance appliance for her family. These were manufactured and sold widely, so she might have been pretty much anywhere, but they were certainly prevalent in the Midwest (the Arnold was manufactured in Racine, WI) and upper Northeast. It's possible she'd have been one of the women who had been treated for hysteria by a doctor who used the vibrator for genital massage -- but if she has not had that experience, we have no assurance that she'd have known it was useful for "hysterical paroxysms," aka orgasm. (The cat was let out of that particular bag in the very late 1910s or very early '20s by porn movies, but 1914 was early for such things.)

She might have ordered her Arnold through the mail, having seen an ad in a ladies' magazine. It might have been available at her department store, if she lived in a town large enough for one, or an appliance store. Traveling salesmen also handled them.

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"Handled them!" Speaking of salesman, what big claims does it make? Is there doublespeak?

Oh, it makes pretty enormous claims about the value of vibration for health needs of many, many kinds -- even tuberculosis! In fact, it addresses practically everything *but* hysteria here, though other books are more direct about this.

Language about sexuality is generally extremely vague in these booklets, and this one is no exception. It's got less innuendo than most, I'd say.

It does make crystal clear that the vibrator is good for circulation -- and that's quite right, and is one of the reasons we consider vibrators a good sex toy today -- arousal has very much to do with circulation. So do a number of the other things the vibrator promises to cure, per this booklet. But it is likely that many vibrator users who bought ALL the health hype were disappointed. They are not great weight loss aids. They do not make your breasts larger. And if you have consumption -- aka tuberculosis, for pity's sake go to the doctor!

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What do you hope visitors and researchers will take away from the new addition?

Besides the wonderful period graphics and the fact that it adds value and depth to the collection, it is a research item of sorts, because it can be made available to scholars or writers who are addressing vibrator (or early electrical appliance) history. Terrific work in this topic is already done, published over 10 years ago in Rachel Maines' book The Technology of Orgasm. But it certainly sheds light on early-20th-century ideas about health and wellness, home treatment of ailments, and of course, if considered in context, sexuality.

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1 comments
hplovecraft
hplovecraft topcommenter

Great ' line art ' technical drawing.. easy to see where R. Crumb drew some of his influences and style..

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