Victorian Women And Their “Toys”

Matthew Sweet states in his book, Inventing the Victorians:  “William Acton’s The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857)- in which he famously remarked that ‘ That majority of women are not very much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind’- is frequently cited as the defining slogan of Victorian attitudes to female sexuality…..Sources concurring with Acton, however, are rather less easy to find than those arguing against exactly the opposite- that women’s erotic appetites were strong, and that sexual abstinence could harm the health of the female subject….Selective quotations from her (Sara Stickney Ellis) occupy a similarly prominanent position in the discussions of the domestic lives of  nineenth century women.  Selective quotations from her didactic writing has launched a thousand critiques of the power of Victorian patriachy, yet such studies rarely acknowledge that allusions of her work in more mainstream literature- in the works of  Wilkie Collins and Geraldine Jewsbury, for example- are invariably dismissive.  How do we know that using Ellis or Acton as keys to the nineteenth-century mindset is not like using Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus or The Surrendered Wife to explain the complexity of our own?  Why should we assme that the Victorians’ self-help books and sex manuals were any less silly, flaky or ephemeral  than those that fill today’s bookshops?”


For one example, one only needs to look at female hysteria, which was a widely diagnosed malady in the nineteenth century.  An 1859 report stated that over a quarter of the female population suffered from it, and a seventy-five page catalog of symptoms was published.  These included everything from headaches, nervousness, fainting spells, and stomach pains to depression  and ill-behavior.  

  A popular remedy was administered by doctors in which they massaged their female clients in their office until the women reached orgasm.  One physician, Dr. Swift, traveled extensively, and kindly made house calls.  These pelvic massages proved incredibly beneficial; however, they also proved time consuming for the doctors. George Taylor rectified that by inventing the first steam-powered vibrator in 1869.  In 1883, Dr. J. M. Granville  invented the first electromechanical vibrator.  This mechanical device proved so effective and popular that after the turn of the century it was marketed  as a home appliance for women.

Nowadays, it is believed that female hysteria was an incorrectly diagnosed medical condition.  Rather, it is assumed, most of the women probably suffered from anxiety disorders. 

Regardless of the underlying cause, it is clear that the 19th century medical community, despite any nonsense pop writers like Acton might have claimed, understood full-well the needs of women to be sexually satisfied for both their physical and mental health.

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33 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. And the need for male doctors to make house calls!

    Of course sexuality during the Victorian age was so convoluted (not unlike today). It shun prostitution but every city had a red light district and that is just once example.

    It was also the age of Oscar Wilde….

  2. “From neck to knee”…

    Oh my god, that poster is *killing* me.

    Tasha, you’re going to get some interesting search engine hits today. 🙂

    I remember reading about this somewhere, but I had no idea that vibrators were a household item by 1900.

  3. I also wonder, with the modern craze of steampunk, has someone recreated the steampowered “massage-machine”?

  4. Amy,

    I know- isn’t that poster great? I laughed so hard when I first saw it.

    And yeah, I thought the same thing regarding the search engine hits. I must admit I was a bit tempted to name this post, “Victorian Women and Their Vibrators”, but decided on a bit of subtlety. 😉

    I’m going to edit the wording in the post, because it actually became a household item after the turn of the century, not “by” it. My goof there. I’m not sure who first sold it, but I did find a 1918 Sears advertisement…

  5. Hey Ralfast,

    The more I study the time period, I more I wonder if their views really were so convoluted. It’s like what Matthew Sweet was saying in that quote. Why should we assume the average man or woman listened to silly advice such as the infamous, “lie back and think of England”? That would be like assuming that I, or any of my female friends ever followed that book, “The Rules”. (shudder)

    The Victorians certainly had their hypocracies, but for the most part, things were accepted as long as the people were very discreet about it.

  6. Ralfast,

    Maybe you could throw the steam powered massage machine into your steampunk novel. 😉

    I’d actually consider having my heroine pay a visit to her doctor, but somehow I think the scene would come out hilarous for the wrong reasons!

  7. I’ve heard of this before but it still cracks me up how they treated it. I love the comment that it sometimes took a long time, lol.

  8. Melanie,

    I know! Nowadays health experts have proven that sex is great for one’s well-being. But while a doctor might suggest you spend more affectionate time with your loved one…there’s no way they would ever do such a uh “treatment” themselves. Unless they wanted to lose their job!

    Oh, those nutty Victorians! 🙂

  9. Incredible. I knew about the diagnoses of “hysteria” but had never heard of the medically prescribed “massages”. LOL Wow, the birth of the ‘massage parlor.’ That poster is too much, I can hardly believe it was actually exhibited publicly.

    I just have to wonder where Acton got the idea women didn’t like sex. Guess he must not have been a babe-magnet.

  10. *giggles*


    That poster furthers my belief that the Victorians were nowhere near the uptight prudes they’ve been made out to seem.

    Regarding Acton- um yeah. It’s strange that the men and women who perpetuated the myth of the 19th c. female as some asexual Angel Of The House were actually a small group, but goodness they were LOUD.

  11. I’ve always been fascinated by the Victorians, and the contradictions which arise when delving beyond the common beliefs. The steam-powered vibrator is one of the most interesting (if somewhat unlikely) things they managed to pass off as “medical” in nature. I dread to think what a steampunk author would do with that particular contraption… Best not to ponder that for too long.

    The television series Tipping The Velvet has one of the best debunks of the “repressed Victorian” stereotype, and I wouldn’t be surprised by anything from the era. The fact that Queen Victoria refused to believe in the existence of lesbians remains a puzzle to me, given the well-known male homosexuals who were outed in the period. Double standards, huh…

    Excellent post.

  12. Hi BigWords,

    Thank you so much for stopping by and I’m very glad you liked the post.

    Even before I started my in-depth research into the Victorian era, common sense made it impossible for me to believe so many of the myths about it. The Victorians were disserviced not only by their pop psychology books that they came to be defined by, but also by their children and grandchildren (the flappers and such) who wanted to distance themselves from that time. I recall reading a quote by a man who’d grown up during the late Victorian era and then read a history book about that time, filled with the usual stereotypes showing them as prudish, no sense of humor, totally straightlaced, no sense of fun. I wish I could remember the exact quote, but he pretty much was baffled, saying the book got it all wrong and they hadn’t been like that at all.

    I’ve seen Tipping The Velvet and read the book. Quite good. Have you read Fingersmith by the same author? (Sarah Waters). It’s really incredible.

  13. That poster really is amazing. I’ll bet a fair number of doctors took those house calls pretty seriously.

    At an antique shop, I once picked up what I thought was a heavy glass paperweight which was oddly rounded on the bottom. When I mentioned that, a friend told me what it really was: a Victorian bumplug. I thought she was joking, but later I went home and looked it up on the internet. Live and learn.

  14. I have Fingersmith, but haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet. As soon as there is a period of grace between obligations and work I really have to start reading through my pile of unread books.

    Mary, if you think that is bad, wait until you discover the workaround methods which were employed to prevent pregnancy. Animal membranes were very popular, though I dare say no more… 🙂

  15. Mary,

    I’m laughing so hard that I literally have tears in my eyes.

  16. BigWords,

    Good grief. They *did* have rubbers back then. I’d hate to think some people were so shy about purchasing them that they opted for animal membranes instead. And I’m trying very hard not to imagine *how* they used them.

  17. When I said “convoluted” I meant that the Victorians seemed to have contradictory visions of the female sexual drive. In many of the stories I read, women are portrayed as being weak and easily seduced because they were driven by their urges and not their minds. Dracula certainly falls into the category of women with uncontrolled libidos.

    As for sexual toys, those, according to the playwrights of Ancient Greece, were invented to keep their women happy since they too could not (apparently) control themselves. Dildos became a staple of Greek comedies, although I’m sure that they exaggerated (a bit). Then again, it’s the same culture that gave us the Satyr, so….

  18. I had come across this during some of my research on the Victorian era and Victorian sexuality. Very interesting.

  19. Ralfast,

    Ah. Okay. I see what you meant. 🙂

  20. I think so too, Jenna. 🙂

  21. Wow, I literally just read Fingersmith last night. Incredible book. 🙂

    And this post–brilliant.

    I also am sort of mindblown by the poster. And by the treatment. And by how women must have used word of mouth to recommend it to one another. And what their husbands or fathers thought (would only a married woman get this treatment?)

    WOW. 🙂 🙂

    Great post. 🙂

    And so much for recommending Fingersmith to you–I instantly thought of you the second I put it down.

  22. Heya Sput,

    My guess is that this treatment was used more by single women than married. They had more need for it since they didn’t have the normal outlets that single gals can enjoy today, hence their built up frustrations!

    On the other hand, since descretion was key back then, who knows how many adult unmarried women were truly virgins back then? I’m guessing a lot less than we might imagine.

    So maybe this was the last resort for those women who weren’t as…daring?

    This reminded me of something I read in Yvonne De Carlo’s autobiography years ago. (the actress most famous for playing Lily Munster). Back in the 1950s (and that decade was so much like the height of the Victorian age in many aspects) she kept going to her doctor due to headaches, mood swings and such. He finally pretty much spit out the fact that all of her symptoms were due to sexual frustration and she needed to go get laid! Evidently after that, she stopped stressing about being a “proper, good girl”. 😉

    That’s funny about Fingersmith. I could have sworn I mentioned that book to you in an email. So glad you liked it!

  23. Wow. Never knew any of this really…learn something new every day! 😛

  24. Hahahaha…this one is my favorite post I’ve read this week. Rock my socks off…no, not in THAT way…hahaha…I am rolling.

  25. Hey Dara!

    Don’t feel bad. They certainly don’t teach these aspects of the 19th c. in school! This stuff is unknown to most people! 🙂

  26. Heya Colby,

    So glad you enjoyed the post so much. I wish I could take more credit, but it’s THAT POSTER.

    I *want* that poster, btw. lol

  27. Amen. Or Ditto.

    Seriously!!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 Madness. 🙂

  28. I love the contrast of how decorous the poster looks – the woman’s mildly patient expression, the folds of her dress falling gracefully – with what’s actually going on. Doctor, doctor, I think you’ve rocked her!

  29. where can the swiftb poster be purchased?

  30. Hi Joe,

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure where it can be purchased. It would be a scream to hang in one’s study. 😉

  31. I have that poster 😀 It’s above my bed, to remind me who to call, when in need 😛 Found it in a thrift store where I used to work, paid €0.50 for it!! I’ve seen it on ebay too, just search for dr swift.

  32. Hi Amber,

    Thanks for visiting my blog! That’s hilarious that you have the poster. I think I will buy a copy one day. But I’d be tempted to put it in the bathroom where everyone could see it. A nice little conversational piece. 🙂

  33. That seems like a splendid idea! I’ve considered putting it above the fridge as well (I have a low one), but I’m an artist, and I enjoy painting and drawing masturbating women, so I’m making a nice little collection of sexual images above my bed, I think it would be a little over the top anywhere else in the house 😉

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