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Selling Sex Toys: Marketing and the Meaning of Vibrators in Early Twentieth-Century America

  • HALLIE LIEBERMAN (a1)
Abstract

The electromechanical vibrator originated in the late nineteenth century as a device for medical therapy. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, however, marketing of vibrators as consumer appliances became pervasive. Ads appeared in the pages of The New York Times and Scientific American and plastered street cars. Companies marketed vibrators to grandparents, mothers, infants, and young adults. Vibrators are widely sold today, however, as instruments for masturbation, a use that was rarely mentioned but well known before World War II. How was vibrator advertising able to become so ubiquitous during the early twentieth century, despite draconian antiobscenity laws and antimasturbation rhetoric? This article argues that companies achieved this result by shaping the meaning of vibrators through strategic marketing. This marketing overtly portrayed vibrators as nonsexual while covertly conveying their sexual uses through imagery and the sale of phallic, dildo-like attachments.

Companies positioned vibrators within two major consumer product categories in the early 1900s: labor-saving household appliances and electrotherapeutic devices. By advertising the vibrator as both a labor-saving household appliance and a sexualized health panacea, companies could slip vibrator ads past the censors, while supplying user manuals that clued consumers into specific sexual uses. In household appliance ads, companies drew on traditional gender roles to present vibrators as emblems of domesticity and motherhood, whereas in electrotherapeutic ads they presented vibrators as symbols of progressive gender roles, the sexualized new woman and the body-conscious “self-made man.”

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