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The Untold History of Erotic Enhancements

From ancient dildos to erotic dance to Fifty Shades of Grey.

Some people think the first sex toy was the Hitachi Magic Wand, a vibrator introduced around 1970. Actually, people have used toy-like items to enhance sex since pre-historic times:

c. 25,000 B.C. Prehistoric carvings of erotic female figurines boasting oversized breasts, bellies, hips, buttocks, and vaginal lips. Most experts consider them fertility goddesses. However, it’s also possible that they were the porn of their day, used to sexually excite men.

c 2500 B.C. First documented dancing. Depicted in Egyptian art, female dancers gyrated nearly naked carrying a sculpture of an oversized erect penis to honor the god Osiris. Possibly an agricultural fertility ritual. Possibly something else.

c. 600 B.C. Debut of theater, as an offshoot of the ancient Greeks’ Festival of Dionysus, god of fertility, wine, and the arts. Dionysian festivals lasted several days and featured public intoxication and sex. Basically, they were drunken orgies. Ever since, sex has been associated with the arts and alcohol.

c. 500 B.C. Invention of the dildo. This momentous event occurred in Miletus, a Greek port on the western shore of today’s Turkey. Miletan traders sold what the Greeks called olisbos. A Greek literary fragment from the third century B.C. tells of a young woman, Metro, whose husband is away. She visits her friend, Coritto, to borrow her olisbo, only to learn that Coritto has lent it to another gal. Metro departs crestfallen.

c. 350 B.C. First mention of olive oil as a sexual accessory. It was touted for contraception (incorrectly). But ever since, couples have used vegetable oils as sexual lubricants.

c. 300 A.D. Invention of penis extenders, toys now dalled prosthetic penis attachments (PPAs). First mentioned in the Kama Sutra, these cylindrical toys fit over men’s erections to make them look larger. The Kama Sutra suggested crafting penis extenders from wood, leather, buffalo horn, copper, silver, ivory, or gold.

c. 500. Invention of ben-wa balls. Single balls, usually made from silver, were mentioned in Asian sex writings from Burma to Japan. Some were solid, others hollow with clappers that make a ringing sound as they roll around the vagina (Burmese bells). Originally used to increase men’s pleasure during intercourse, ben wa balls eventually became paired, and were used by women to increase the strength of the pelvic floor muscles involved orgasm. If these muscles are weak, the balls drop out when women stand or walk. But as they become stronger, women can hold the balls inside and enjoy more intense orgasms. Today, the pelvic floor muscles are usually strengthened with Kegel exercises. But ben wa balls also work.

c 655. Introduction of mirrors as sexual accessories. Lady Wu Chao, consort to the Chinese Emperor Tai Tsung ordered large sheets of reflecting glass arranged around their bed.

c 1200. Invention of proto-penis rings. The first documented rings were made in China from the eyelids of goats—with eyelashes intact. The eyelids were tied around men’s erections, and the lashes were said to increase lovers’ pleasure.

c. 1400. Coining of the term “dildo.” In Renaissance Italy, the Greek olisbo became “dildo,” possibly from the Latin dilatare, to open wide, or perhaps from the Italian diletto, to delight. Renaissance Italian dildos were made of wood or leather, with olive oil the recommended lubricant.

c. 1600. Invention of the modern penis ring and clitoral stimulator. Chinese men slipped ivory rings over their erections to help maintain them. The rings were ornately carved, usually depicting dragons. Over time, the carved dragons’ tongues extended to form a nub that protruded from one side of the rings. The nub was placed against the woman’s clitoris to enhance her pleasure during intercourse, the forerunner of today’s clitoral stimulators.

c. 1700. First mention of water-jet massage. Some European heath spas installed gravity-fed systems that sent powerful jets of water into bathing pools. These devices were the forerunners of the jets incorporated into today’s jacuzzis. While not specifically developed for female genital massage, surviving accounts hint that some women spent considerable time leaning into those jets.

c. 1750. Appearance of modern BDSM. The Kama Sutra mentions sexual spanking and other SM practices. References to SM also appear in European sex writings dating from the 15th century. But BDSM came into its own during the mid-18th century, when some European brothels began specializing in flagellation and other SM-style “punishments” that dominant sex workers administered to willingly submissive men.

1791. Publication of the SM novel, Justine by Donatien Alphonse Francoise, comte de Sade, better known as the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). De Sade’s name became the source of the term “sadism.” His highly controversial writings popularized BDSM and the many toys used in it, including: whips, riding crops, nipple clamps, and restraints.

c. 1830. Debut of the can-can. Parisian dancers inaugurated modern sexual dancing by lifting their skirts on stage and showing off their fishnet stockings, filly petticoats, and lace panties. Soon after, the panties disappeared—and the can-can became much more popular with French men. The dance quickly spread to the U.S.

c. 1840. Invention of photography. Almost immediately, “French postcards” became available—female nudes in erotic poses.

1844. The vulcanization of rubber. Invented by Charles Goodyear, vulcanization made rubber stronger and more elastic. Goodyear went on to found the tire company that bears his name. Other nameless inventors used vulcanized rubber to develop condoms, dildos, and other sex toys.

c. 1850. Debut of vaudeville. This earthy theatrical form included comedians telling jokes ranging from off-color to very dirty.

1869. Debut of the vibrator. Developed by an American physician, George Taylor, M.D., it was a large, cumbersome, steam-powered apparatus recommended to treat an illness called “female hysteria.” Hysteria, from the Greek for “suffering uterus,” involved anxiety, irritability, sexual fantasies, and “excessive” vaginal lubrication—in other words, sexual arousal during the Victorian era, a time when women were not considered to be sexual. Physicians of that era treated hysteria by massaging sufferers’ vulvas until they experienced sudden, dramatic relief through “paroxysm” (orgasm). Unfortunately, hysteria was a recurrent condition. After a few months, or weeks, or in serious cases, just days, repeat treatment was necessary. Physicians who became known for their skill in vulvar massage earned large incomes—and suffered sore hands and arms. Taylor touted his steam-driven massage device as speeding treatment while reducing physician fatigue.

1870. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, published the novel, Venus in Furs, about male sexual submission. His name inspired the term “masochism.”

1882. Debut of the electric vibrator. Forerunner of today’s vibrators, they were smaller and less cumbersome than Taylor’s steam-powered device. The original vibe was a battery-powered massager designed by British physician Joseph Mortimer Granville that featured attachments similar to those in today’s vibrator kits, allowing physicians treating hysteria to vary sensations.

1890. Invention of motion pictures. Almost immediately, early filmmakers began producing pornography, some of which featured women playing with dildos, including strap-ons, and vibrators.

1899. Publication of America’s first advertisement for a home electric vibrator, the Vibratile, in McClure’s magazine as a cure for headache, wrinkles, and “neuralgia,” or nerve pain, a term that included hysteria.

1900. At the Paris Exposition, physician-inventors displayed more than a dozen electric vibrators. Medical journals and textbooks of that era extolled the devices as effective treatment for hysteria.

1903. American physician Samuel Howell Monell, M.D., reported “wonderful results” for vibrator treatment of female hysteria. In Monell’s view, compared with vibrators, vulvar massage by hand offered “no value for the majority.”

1900-1920. Popularization of the vibrator. As electricity became more available around the U.S., plug-in home vibrators became one of the first electric appliances. They were advertised in many magazines, including: Needlcraft, Modern Women, Home Needlework Journal, and Woman’s Home Companion. Marketed to women as health and relaxation aids, vibrator advertising copy was filled with double-entendres: “all the pleasure of youth...will throb within you.” The popular Sears & Roebuck catalogue offered a vibrator, it touted as “very satisfactory...[an] aid every woman appreciates.”

1907. The Penis Stiffener wins a U.S. patent. Developed by Louis Hawley and designed for men with erection problems, it was the first American PPA, a hollow metal cylinder with a wide opening at one end for the penis, and a small opening at the other to allow sperm into the vagina.

1921. The first vibrator advertisement aimed at men. Published in a 1921 issue of Hearst’s magazine, it exhorted men to buy vibrators for their wives as Christmas gifts to keep them “young and pretty” and free from the scourge of hysteria.

c. 1925. Vaudeville shows morph into strip-tease. Starring the likes of Gypsy Rose Lee, strippers combined can-can moves with sexual bump and grind. Until the 1960s, strippers didn’t strip naked. They slowly peeled down to nipple covers (pasties) and crotch covers (G-strings), both of which eventually become sex toys. They also incorporated many props into their acts, among them: fans, furs, capes, and feather boas, which eventually were incorporated into lingerie and sex toys.

1927. Introduction of KY Jelly. Originally marketed only to physicians to improve women’s comfort during pelvic exams, in 1980, KY went over the counter as a sexual lubricant. Since then, many other lubricants have been introduced.

Late-1920s. Vibrators appear prominently in porn, not as “massagers,” but as masturbation aids. One movie, The Widow’s Delight, showed a well-dressed gal at her front door bidding good night to her dashing suitor then trotting off to her bedroom, where she strips to her underwear, grabs her vibrator, and presses it between her legs.

c. 1930. Vibrator advertisements are banished from magazines and catalogues. As more porn films showed women using vibrators for solo sex, it became impossible for manufacturers to maintain that they were innocent “massagers.” Self-appointed guardians of morality branded them heinous, and very quickly, vibrators virtually disappeared.

c. 1930. Development of latex rubber. Lighter, softer, and more pliable then vulcanized rubber, latex revolutionized contraception, allowing production of better condoms and diaphragms—and latex sex toys.

1948. Debut of amateur erotic photography for the masses.In 1948, the Polaroid-Land camera arrived. It produced black and white photographs in just one minute without a third-party developer. It allowed anyone to become an erotic photographer.

1953. Debut of Playboy. Hugh Hefner’s premiere issues, produced on his kitchen table in Chicago, featured Marilyn Monroe topless. Extremely tame by today’s standards, Playboy was attacked as pornography.

1964. Debut of topless dancing. Carol Doda pulled off her pasties and proudly displayed her nipples at the Condor Club in San Francisco. Bottomless dancing followed not long after.

c. 1965. Re-emergence of the vibrator. You just can’t keep a good sex toy down.

1970. Debut of the waterbed. Inventor Charles P. Hall designed it for sleep comfort, but waterbeds quickly came to be considered sex enhancing. Hugh Hefner installed one in his bedroom at the Playboy mansion. Many hotels added them to their honeymoon suites.

1972. Release of Deep Throat. This porn film about a woman (played by Linda Lovelace) whose clitoris was located in her throat, became the first and only X-rated movie to break out of the porn ghetto and play to mainstream audiences. Produced for $25,000, it grossed an estimated $600 million, and helped porn go mainstream.

1975. Debut of the videocassette recorder (VCR). Within a few years, video cassette porn was available in video stores nationwide.

Late-1970s. Debut of the home video camera. Forget Polaroids. With a camcorder, anyone could produce home porn videos that could be played back immediately.

c. 1992. Debut of Internet porn sites. Pornographic photos became available to those with modems in countries that banned X-rated media.

c. 2000. Debut of broadband. Pornographic films became available over the Internet. Today porn sites rank among the top Internet destinations for men of all ages.

2011. Publication of Fifty Shades of Grey. In two years, the BDSM-laced romance trilogy sold 65 million copies, making it one of the best-selling novels of all time and spurring sales of floggers and other BDSM toys.

Did I miss anything? If you have suggestions, please comment. Thanks!

 

San Francisco journalist Michael Castleman, M.A., has written about sexuality for 36 years. more...

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