San Francisco's Antique Vibrator Museum

Sep 04, 2012 at 12am

My vibrator wore out during my final week of grad school this spring.

With a big paper due, I was feeling chained to my laptop. Between finishing the project and trying to remove the battery stuck inside the metal tube of my vibrator, I was practically hysterical. Then I remembered that hysteria’s a made-up medical condition, fake as man flu. But still, I had to find a fix, so eventually, I went down to Good Vibrations on Polk Street to make a new friend. It was during this visit that I found out that Good Vibes had expanded its famous vintage vibrator collection and opened an official Antique Vibrator Museum.

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I’ve been fascinated by the history of vibrators since I first visited San Francisco in the '90s. I made a point of stopping into the Good Vibrations location on Valencia Street to check out its antique vibrator collection, which at the time, was composed within one tiny glass case. I couldn’t believe that these instruments of pleasure were used by Victorian-era doctors to treat women who were brainwashed to believe they were sick. These were the times when trouble-making, uppity women were labeled hysterical to bully them into behaving. These were also the times when it was commonly believed that women didn't need to have orgasms, because sex was for making babies, not for fun.

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How far we’ve come. There I was, more than a century later, inside a retail store that proudly sells vibrators and other sex toys. Good Vibrations has been the female-friendly place to buy vibes since 1977, when it was opened by sex educator Joani Blank. Named after the quintessentially California Beach Boys song, it was the first store of its kind in the Bay Area. Nowadays, it’s an SF institution.

Joani started collecting vintage vibrators that she found at garage sales and flea markets in the South Bay, where she lived at the time. “I used to keep them in a suitcase under my bed,” she told me during a phone conversation. She'd show them off to friends and they would all have a laugh. Eventually, she moved them into the store, where they made great conversation starters.  

Joani no longer owns Good Vibes (she sold the business to GV employees in 1992), but the vibrator collection she started has expanded, and currently, the Antique Vibrator Museum has more than a hundred models – just part of a larger rotating collection of machines from the 1860s to the 1970s – on display.

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One of the best things about the museum is that you can book a private tour with Carol Queen. If you've lived in the Bay Area long enough or watched enough Real Sex episodes, you probably already know that Carol is a fixture in the sex positive feminist movement. She's been with Good Vibes since 1990 and is now the museum’s curator. Carol has a Ph.D. in Sexology, as well as a witty sense of humor. When I met Carol for my tour, she was wearing a Good Vibrations logo tee, which read “Where Do You Get Off?”  

Carol started the tour by showing me some of the oldest vibrators on display. Machines like Macaura’s Pulsocon Blood Circulator, which was operated – usually by a doctor –  by hand-cranking faster and faster until both the rotating end and the patient quivered. All that cranking was very labor-intensive; it almost seems like it would’ve been easier to do it the old-fashioned, “hands-on,” way. If you’ve seen the 2011 Maggie Gyllenhaal movie, Hysteria, you’ll know why the invention of the vibrator was a godsend for doctors’ hand muscles. You’ll also see cameo appearances by some antique vibrators borrowed from the Good Vibrations collection in the film's credits.

Next on the tour, we saw vibes that were used out of doctors’ offices. When the power of electricity was brought into homes, women had the means to do it (to) themselves within the privacy of their own homes. “The vibrator was one of the first electric gadgets available, along with the sewing machine, toaster, and fan,” Carol explained. “Vibrators were common household items.” Hamilton Beach, the well-known manufacturer that may also make the blender or toaster oven in your kitchen, first put out Types D & F in 1902, “great for soothing away pain.” The machines remind me of a hair dryer, but with a rotating head. Heavy and loud, you needed to be brave to use one of these early vibes.

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I worked my way through grad school writing marketing copy, so I was drawn to the museum’s display of coy vibrator advertisements that proliferated in the women’s magazines in the early 20th century. The Eskimo, circa 1934, had four applicators, two speeds, an extra powerful, penetrating action, and instructions to, “use wherever massage is desired.” Still, one of its most popular uses remained cloaked in public, and the Eskimo, along with other buzzing implements, was sold in stores with other household appliances. Then, when vibrators were used in pornography for their true purpose, the advertisements disappeared.  

In the ’40s and ’50s, vibrators were on the scene in more popular styles and feminine colors. I spotted the Vibra-King, from an Oakland, CA company, made in popular Bakelite plastic. Other cool modern vibes included the tongue-in-cheekily named Beautysage Vibrator and the Pat-A-Glow Electro Vibrator from Helena Rubenstein, both designed to be a part of your daily beauty routine. One of the most fascinating parts of the museum is a timeline tracking the history of vibrators, which shows that it was only in 1952 that hysteria, a myth that shadowed women since antiquity, was removed from the American Psychiatric Association list of diseases.

As we moved from case to case, Carol explained that vibrators often conformed to popular trends of the day. From the ’40s to the ’60s vibrating machines were housed in fashionable portable cases. Battery-operated, you attached a wire wherever you wanted to feel a buzz. Peggy on television’s Mad Men came up with an advertising ploy for this style of vibrator, that the client claimed was for weight loss. Brochures had diagrams of every possible use except for the most popular one. Customers could use their imagination.

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Next Carol got personal and showed me her very first vibrator: The Star Electric Vibrator, made in 1905 by the Fitzgerald Manufacturing Co. Someone gave it to her in college, and she really used it. “What was it like?” I asked, amazed. “Did it hurt?” “Not at all,” Carol said, smiling. I’m impressed. I’ve road-tested vibrators and wrote about it before, but this kind of experience is on a whole different level.

As we looked at more and more pleasure machines, I asked Carol where they all came from. For all you fans of locally-produced goods, you'll be glad to know that “most of the vibrators in the collection were sourced in the Bay Area,” Carol explained. Some of them were donated from Bay Area Good Vibrations customers. Throughout the years the museum built on Joani’s original collection with vibrators from flea markets, including the Alameda Antiques market in the East Bay.

In recent years, Good Vibes has rounded out their collection by trolling eBay for rarer finds. If the vibrators were well taken care of, and the motors oiled regularly, the pleasure machines could last forever. During the sexual revolution, attitudes changed, to the point where hippies constructed their own vibrators from scraps. I love the Hippie Homemade vibrator on display, from a 1960s Northern California commune, and made from various repurposed materials, including a saucepan handle.

In the ’60s and ’70s, vibrators went cordless. These types are definitely more recognizable. The Hitachi Magic Wand is Carol’s favorite and perennially a best seller. Vibrators were originally manufactured in the Midwest, but gradually, production moved to Asia, as more goods were mass-produced there. It’s interesting that vibrators were only available for sale in China in the last ten years or so. Carol remembers sourcing vibrators from China that were made for export only. “And back then they couldn’t look like a penis. It would be too risqué.” That explains why so many buzzing toys were shaped like samurais or bunnies.

After the tour, Laurie, a Good Vibrations g-spot sexpert, helped me select my new vibrator, The Lelo Gigi. A vibrator is an emblem of a free society and getting a new one is always so liberating. I’ve learned to love myself again since moving to San Francisco. As I embark on my career as a sexy librarian, I can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

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You, too, can walk through history at the Antique Vibrator Museum and celebrate that people come to San Francisco for freedom, sexual freedoms among them. The museum is located in the Good Vibrations retail store at 1620 Polk St. at Clay in Nob Hill. They’re open every day from 12:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., with late night hours on Thursdays, open until 8:30 p.m. And like all good things in life, the museum is free to the public.

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