Breadsticks to Rabbits: A History of the Dildo

by | December 4, 2013
filed under Feminism

1918 Sears Roebuck ad

1918 Sears Roebuck ad

by Jenni Podolski

It is difficult to explore the history of female sexuality even if you look for it, let alone find it represented in popular media. There’s a sense that we are either the first to embrace sex and pleasure, or are taking it further than our female ancestors.

If anything, our inheritance is mostly dominated by anti-sexual archetypes: The Virgin Mary, the Virgin Queen (Elizabeth), blushing prudes in Victorian novels, and the ultra-puritanical Joan of Arc. The secretive and little-documented nature of female sexuality becomes an interesting mystery, however, when you look at the history of the dildo.

Earliest records of sex toys originate 15,000 years ago, with sculptures of penises found in places like Germany and Austria. It’s still unclear whether these were used for ritualistic purposes (as many things were) or personal pleasure, but both are likely.

When the ancient Greek and Roman eras come along there is suddenly plenty of documentation of all manner of sex toys being used. Plays and texts by such famed writers as Aristotle and Aristophanes have women talking about oblisbos (wooden or stone dildos) candidly, using olive oil as lube, and even the borrowing and lending of such tools. They even came up with the idea of using leather or animal intestine on these oblisbos to create a more natural feel – something manufacturers still struggle with.

There are also depictions in art, and it seems like sex toys were an acceptable and common part of everyday life in these cultures. Vicki Leon, in her book The Joy Of Sexus even claims that in poorer or more sheltered communities, where oblisbos were hard to find or acquire, breadsticks and other foods were used. The origin of the word dildo comes from the Italian word for delight, diletto, and open wide, dilatare.

A lot of us have a back-of-the-mind thought that progress occurs on a linear, forward-looking scale. Looking at how open, discussed, and unproblematic sexual devices were in these societies makes the world right now look a long way off where it could be. But it’s worth remembering we can go backwards sometimes too.

It is initially in Ancient Greece also (not Victorian England, as is commonly believed) that sex toys were used to treat hysteria in women. Women whose husbands were away at war, or who had not had sex for a long time, were advised to use sex toys to “cure” their hysteria. Even in the sexually-open classical times it seems that a woman who lusted was still hysterical, as opposed to men, who lust naturally.

Elsewhere in the world recordings of sex toys are just as common during this time. Wealthy Chinese men often had so many wives that many remained sexually unfulfilled, and were given dildos of metal in order to stop them from “resorting to lesbianism”. Mention is also made multiple times in A Thousand And One Arabian Nights of sexual practices involving things like fruit and other objects. It’s not just men who will “sleep with anything”!

Like many aspects of female, and indeed sexual, culture, there’s a dearth of information in the religiously-charged centuries following the Roman empire. Some online sources believe medieval and renaissance doctors still suggested “massage” as a treatment for hysteria, but it’s difficult to believe anything below the waistline was even addressed medically during a period accurately named the “Dark Ages”.

Funnily enough, it is during the emotionally-stilted Victorian era that the sex toy emerges again – still as a “cure” for female hysteria, but a seemingly popular one.

In 1869 an American physician, George Taylor, invented a steam-powered vibrator called a “manipulator”. Later, in 1882, an electrical one was used by British doctors for therapy, and they became cheap enough to be offered in magazines for “self-treatment”. All of this against a backdrop in which cereal magnates Kellogg and Graham were vehemently campaigning against masturbation.

The story continues in this bizarre manner throughout the beginning of the 20th century. Vibrators (during this period the term didn’t specifically denote a sexual purpose) were offered as “massagers” or, as listed in an old Sears catalogue of the time “Mother’s Little Helper”. In this clandestine way, female sexuality embraced self-pleasure with typical ingenuity and all the guilt that implies.

It is even suggested that, after overt depictions of vibrators in some silent films of the era, they became taboo, and were forced even further underground. Though Rachel P. Maines, in her book The Technology Of Orgasm, documents plenty of evidence that in they were still sold in the pages of housekeeping, sewing and lifestyle magazines.

Sex toys offer an interesting insight into female sexuality throughout the ages. It’s evidence of just how confused society – and with it probably most women – were by the female orgasm. It was a “cure” when the lack of it was the “cause” in the first place! In a society where female pleasure during sex was an unnecessary and forgotten facet of it, it is hardly surprising women were frustrated to the point of ‘hysteria’.

When the 60s roll around, bringing with them the pill, huge civil rights movements, the smashing of sexual taboos, and the freedom to release century’s of sexual repression, the story really begins, and is one we are still living out.

While it’s easy to feel as women that history began in the last century, in the history of the dildo you can decode dramatically diverse experiences of liberation, repression, ingenuity, and misunderstanding. It can be profound to consider just how much women have gone through to enjoy a basic physical need and right. Now, it’s estimated that 75% of American women own a vibrator, and the range and variety of them would be unimaginable to our ancestors (ok, maybe not the Greeks so much). We’ve come a long way from stone and breadsticks.

(Sears ad in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


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