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“Vigor’s vibrating horse-action saddle. It has given the Countess of Aberdeen complete satisfaction.

Female Hysteria

Female Hysteria — This diagnosis was used to explain any of a number of symptoms in women, including shortness of breath, insomnia, muscle spasms and irritability. First used by ancient Greek doctors, the term persisted as a psychological diagnosis until 1952, when the American Psychological Association dropped it.

The doctors came up with a brilliant idea for how to tackle this worrying condition. This could take varying amounts of time depending on the patient and the doctor; anything from a couple of minutes up to several hours. Nevertheless, the result would in most cases always be the same, a little bit of muscular spasm, some sweating and finally a rather intense sensation, which momentarily cured the condition. However, the girls wouldn’t be well for more than a couple of days and sooner or later the dreaded Hysteria would return.

Some of the Doctors got bored stiff…

At first, the stimulator was the size of something between a finger and a penis. However, by the 1870s, a vibrating massage device was invented. From then on, doctors had no more problems with time-consuming massage sessions; the vibrator sorted everything out within minutes.

Victorian ladies crying (photographer unknown)

Female hysteria was once a common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women. The history of the notion of hysteria can be traced to ancient times. Galen, a prominent physician from the second century, wrote that hysteria was a disease caused by deprivation in particularly passionate women: hysteria was quite often in virgins, nuns, widows and, rarely, in married women.

With so many possible symptoms, hysteria was always a natural diagnosis when the ailment could not be identified. For instance, before the introduction of Electroencephalography (EEG), epilepsy was frequently confused with hysteria.

Physicians thought that the stresses associated with modern life caused women to be more susceptible to nervous disorders and to develop faulty reproductive tracts.

The word “hysteria” conjures up an array of images, none of which probably include a nomadic uterus wandering aimlessly around the female body. Yet that is precisely what medical practitioners in the past believed was the cause behind this mysterious disorder. The very word “hysteria” comes from the Greek word hystera, meaning “womb,” and arises from medical misunderstandings of basic female anatomy.

Today, hysteria is regarded as a physical expression of a mental conflict and can affect anyone regardless of age or gender. Centuries ago, however, it was attributed only to women and believed to be physiological (not psychological) in nature.

The womb continued to hold a mystical place in medical text for centuries and was often used to explain away an array of female complaints. The 17th-century physician William Harvey, famed for his theories on the circulation of the blood around the heart, perpetuated the belief that women were slaves to their own biology. He described the uterus as “insatiable, ferocious, animal-like,” and drew parallels between “bitches in heat and hysterical women.” When a woman named Mary Glover accused her neighbour Elizabeth Jackson of cursing her in 1602, the physician Edward Jorden argued that the erratic behaviour that drove Mary to make such an accusation was actually caused by noxious vapors in her womb, which he believed were slowly suffocating her. (The courts disagreed and Elizabeth Jackson was executed for witchcraft shortly thereafter.)

Greek physicians were positively obsessed with the womb. For them, it was the key to explaining why women were so different from men, both physically and mentally.

Hysterical Paroxysm

In the 1700s, the theorized cause of hysteria began to shift from the womb to the brain. But this didn’t stop the emergence of the widespread female hysteria commotion in the 19th century, in which countless cures for haywire wombs were peddled on the population, including hypnosis and vibrating devices and blasting a woman’s abdomen with jets of water. And consider those women of Victorian literature, who were so overcome with emotion–and not at all the suffocating corsets–that they collapsed after announcing they had “a touch of the vapours.” Yes, those same vapours. And how to awaken these women? Smelling salts. Yes, those foul odours of Hippocratic medicine.

Then along comes Sigmund Freud, who says, Whoa, let’s everyone just settle down. Men get so-called hysteria as well. Freud, in fact, attested to experiencing as much himself, and his study of male hysteria indeed eventually informed his famous Oedipus complex. Most importantly, Freud made it abundantly clear that psychological disorders come from the brain, not from a malfunctioning womb.

Today, what the ancient Greeks or Romans or Arabs would consider to be hysteria is in fact a wide range of psychological disorders, from schizophrenia to panic attacks. (The theory lingers in the word “hysteria” itself: It’s derived from the Greek for “womb.”) And the womb, that organ that so befuddled the physicians of yesteryear, is now much more widely appreciated as that thing that, you know, gave birth to all of us. Unless you’re Zeus, and you give birth out of your head. Such are the mysteries of male childbirth, I suppose.

In 1859, it was claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. This number makes sense if you consider that there was a 75-page catalogue with possible symptoms, and this list was seen as incomplete. Some of the symptoms of female hysteria are faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, muscle spasms, shortness of breath, irritability and a loss of appetite for food.
The exact cause of hysteria is not clearly defined, except that is was a ‘womb disease.’ According to the Victorians, it had either to do with pent-up fluids in the female body, stress of modern-day life, or the ‘wanderings of the womb.’ It was definitely an upper-class disease, an American physician expressed pleasure that the country was ‘catching up’ to Europe in the prevalence of hysteria.

Luckily, there was a temporary solution for hysteria (hysteria was a chronic disease so it could never be fully cured.) The woman suffering from hysteria would go to the doctor for a ‘pelvic massage to the point of hysterical paroxysm.’ The doctors thought this to be a very tedious task indeed, and due to this, the first vibrators were invented: around 1870 the first ones were in use by physicians.

An advertisement in Woman’s Home Cosmopolitan in 1906 emphasized the value of the vibrator over the hand as a way to achieve orgasm.

“Why has electrical massage taken the place of the manual, or Swedish method? Simply because it can be applied more rapidly, uniformly and deeply than by hand, and for as long a period as may be desired.”

There were ads of women pulling their dresses down and applying a tool to their necks and shoulders.” The ad copy promised the effect would be “thrilling,” “invigorating,” “all the penetrating pleasures of youth will throb in you again.”

Enough said.

Among the electric eels and the first Medtronics pacemakers at Minneapolis’s Bakken Library and Museum of Electricity in Life is a collection of 11 electric tools dating from the turn of the century. The oldest of the bunch, manufactured by Weiss Instrument Manufacturing Company in the 1890s, is a rectangular metal box with a leather housing and a snaky arm hanging down alongside it. Another, shaped like a blow-dryer with a rubber ball attached to the end, purrs when plugged in. A larger, flatter, stainless steel blow-dryer vibrates and throws mild shocks.
The tools had been catalogued as “musculo-skeletal relaxation devices,” but that was a bit of a fudge because the Bakken’s curators didn’t quite know what people were meant to do with them – until someone explained. The musculo-skeletal relaxation devices were medical vibrators used by Victorian doctors to masturbate their patients to health.

The tools themselves consisted of a sloppy electrical motor in line with a handle. They were at the time the epitome of modern machinery: The works were metal, the handles wood or Bakelite. The whole gizmo weighed 5 to 15 pounds, depending on the size of the motor. One of the earliest models, the 1899 Vibratile, was nothing more than a coil of wire and sold for about $5. Later, more deluxe products, packed in velveteen-lined boxes with brass fittings, went for as much as $20.
The fact is that vibrating machines weren’t designed to relieve shoulder spasms, but to treat a condition that doctors proclaimed arose from the failure to achieve orgasm.
What was the link between vibrators and health? Hysteria. Today, the word means anything from uncontrolled tears to wild antics, but prior to the 1920s, the condition had a much more specific etiology. “It meant ‘womb disease.'” From the dawn of recorded medical history, healers had observed that women, unlike men, didn’t release fluids during sex; as a result, pent-up juices, trapped in the womb, caused all sorts of problems – headaches, irritability, fear of impending insanity, hysteria.
With the same scientific insight that generated this diagnosis, the medical profession lit on a cure. Doctors and midwives massaged the genitals to “hysterical paroxysm,” as the orgasm was scientifically termed, to release held-back energies. By the end of the 19th century, some doctors were advising women to come in for such treatments once a week.
But the task of bringing an overwrought woman to orgasm was seen as a time-consuming and tricky chore. One early physician likened it to trying to rub one’s head and stomach simultaneously. So, in 1883, to relieve overtaxed physicians of their manual duties, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, a Brit, developed the perceteur, a version of which was found in the basement of the Bakken museum.
Given the tenor of Victorian times, it’s not easy to picture doctors masturbating strait-laced middle- and upper-class women in their offices. Didn’t those doctors know what they were doing? Well, they all knew then – with a capital K – that real sex is penetration to male orgasm. When there isn’t penetration to orgasm, they figured, there was no sex.

In fact, one guy who called himself a “physician” made a book with over 70 pages of possible symptoms of Hysteria. Among them were insomnia, faintness and shortness of breath as well as pain in the belly. That meant that in 1859, a quarter of all women in Europe suffered from the disease.

The Dutch book deals with the issue, but I don’t think it has ever been translated. In Frederik van Eeden’s ‘Van de Koele Meren des Doods,’ a young wife gets ill and, after examining her, the physician encourages her husband to engage in the marital duties more often. This book was written in 1900, and I think may be one of the earliest to show how the lack of physical affections in the Victorian marriage might affect a women’s mood.

Ironically, women’s sexual pleasure was the furthest thing from the minds of the male doctors who invented vibrators almost two centuries ago. They were interested in a labor-saving device to spare their hands the fatigue they developed giving handjobs to a steady stream of 19th-century ladies who suffered from “hysteria,” a vaguely defined ailment easily recognizable today as sexual frustration. Therein hangs a strange tale that provides quirky insights into both the history of sex toys and cultural notions about women’s sexuality.

Until the 20th century, American and European men—including physicians—believed that women did not experience sexual desire or pleasure. They believed that women were simply fleshy receptacles for male lust and that intercourse culminating in male ejaculation fulfilled women’s erotic needs. Women were socialized to believe that “ladies” had no sex drive, and that duty required them to put up with sex in order to keep their husbands happy and have children.

Not surprisingly, these beliefs left an enormous number of women sexually frustrated. They complained to doctors of anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasies, feelings of heaviness in the lower abdomen, and wetness between the leg. This syndrome became known as “hysteria,” from the Greek for uterus.

Other cures for female hysteria included bed rest, bland food, seclusion, refraining from mentally taxing tasks (like reading) and sensory deprivation.

Documented complaints of female hysteria date back to the 13th century. Doctors of that era understood that women had libidos and advised them to relieve their sexual frustration with dildos. In the 16th century, physicians told married hysterics to encourage their husbands’ lust. Unfortunately, that probably didn’t help too many wives because modern sexuality research clearly shows that only about 25 percent of women experience orgasm consistently from intercourse.

For hysteria unrelieved by husbandly lust, and for widows, and single and unhappily married women, doctors advised horseback riding, which, for some, provided enough clitoral stimulation to trigger orgasm. But riding provided many women little relief, and by the 17th century, dildos were less of an option because the arbiters of decency had succeeded in demonizing masturbation as “self-abuse.”

Fortunately, a reliable, socially acceptable treatment appeared. Doctors or midwives applied vegetable oil to women’s lady gardens and then massaged them. With this type of massage, women had orgasms and experienced sudden, dramatic relief from hysteria. But doctors didn’t call women’s climaxes orgasms. They called them “paroxysms” because everyone knew that women were incapable of sexual feelings, so they could not possibly experience orgasm.

Women under Hysteria.

By the early 19th century, physician-assisted paroxysm was firmly entrenched in Europe and the U.S. and proved a financial godsend for many doctors. At the time, the public viewed physicians with tremendous distrust. Medicine was, at best, primitive. Most doctors had no scientific training. And their standard treatment, bleeding, killed more people than it helped. But thanks to genital massage, hysteria was one of the few conditions doctors could treat successfully, and it produced large numbers of grateful women who returned faithfully and regularly, eager to pay for additional treatment.

Unfortunately for doctors, hysteria treatment had a downside—achy, cramped fingers and hands from all that massage. In medical journals of the early 1800’s, doctors lamented that treating hysterics taxed their physical endurance. Chronic hand fatigue meant that some doctors had trouble maintaining the treatment long enough to produce the desired (and lucrative) result.

Then in the late nineteenth century, electricity entered homes, and the first electric appliances appeared: the electric fan, toaster, tea kettle, and sewing machine. In 1880, more than a decade before the invention of the electric iron and vacuum cleaner, an enterprising English physician, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, patented the electromechanical vibrator.

Vibrators, both plug-in and later battery-powered, were immediate hits. They produced paroxysm quickly, safely, reliably, and as often as women desired. During the early 20th century, doctors lost their monopoly on hysteria treatment as women began buying the devices for themselves, thanks to advertisements in popular women’s magazines, among them: NeedlecraftWomen’s Home Companion, and the Sears & Roebuck Catalogue, that era’s Amazon.com.

However, to make vibrators’ socially acceptable, their real purpose was disguised. They were called “personal massagers” (and still are in some catalogues today). But discerning women and advertising copy writers knew very well what “massagers” were all about. One 1903 advertisement in the Sears Catalogue touted a popular massager as “a delightful companion … all the pleasures of youth … will throb within you….”

Subsequently, numerous homes with access to electricity the vibrator became portable and put out on the market as an “essential” object for the home. Girls and women could now start treating themselves! By this time, the sexual awareness of women started to develop and within years, Hysteria was “cured”

And just think, we owe it all to physician fatigue. Hurrah!

Female hysteria – Wikipedia

Female Hysteria: 7 Crazy Things People Used To Believe About The …

Vibrators and hysteria: how a cure became a female sexual icon

“Hysteria” and the Strange History of Vibrators | Psychology Today

Vibrators and Clitoridectomies: How Victorian Doctors Took Control of …

Female Hysteria during Victorian Era: Its Symptoms, Diagnosis …

Doctors Created Vibrators After Growing Tired of Masturbating …

Female Hysteria History: 12 Shocking Things Experts Believed

The History of Doctors Diagnosing Women With Hysteria | Glamour

‘Hysteria’ and the Long, Strange History of the Vibrator – The Daily Beast

A man invented vibrators because doctors were tired of giving orgasms

Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health – NCBI – NIH

The Hysterical Female

The Wandering Womb: Female Hysteria through the Ages « The …

Hysteria – Science Museum


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