On a journey to the Antique Vibrator Museum, I ventured into the unknown, uncertain of the reception that I would receive. Little did I anticipate the extraordinary encounter that awaited, as I found myself in the company of none other than Carol Queen, a luminary in the realm of sexuality. A guardian of the museum’s treasures, Carol is more than a curator; they are an activist, writer, and a beacon of sex-positive feminism.

As we connected through the virtual corridors of Google Meets, I was immediately swept into a world shaped by Carol’s boundless passion and profound commitment. Surrounded by a tapestry of plants, books, and vibrant colors, the conversation unfolded organically, transcending the digital realm. It felt as if we were sharing stories in the warmth of Carol’s living room, rather than navigating the virtual space.

A champion for the LGBTQ+ community and a compassionate advocate for those affected by HIV, Carol’s journey to the San Francisco Bay Area has been a testament to their unwavering support, knowledge, and activism.

Our dialogue delved deep into the intersections of sexuality, feminism, and mental health, surpassing my wildest expectations. The privilege of sharing their insights is one I hold dear, and I am humbled to bring our conversation to you.

The Antique Vibrator Museum Beginning

Deanaletta: Let’s start with you telling me about the history of the Antique Vibrator Museum. When was it established and how did it come to be? What was the inspiration for this unique space?

Carol Queen: Ah, what a fantastic question! Delving into the museum’s history is always a delight because it’s just so quirky! Good Vibrations is not your typical vibrator and sex toy store. It stands as a testament to female entrepreneurship, being the second woman-founded store of its kind in the U.S. and the third globally, to the best of our knowledge. The brainchild behind it all is Joani Blanke, a trailblazer in sex education, sometimes a sex therapist, and a staunch reproductive rights activist. Picture the 70s – Joani was right in the thick of it, a true go-getter.

Joani’s journey began as an assistant to feminist sex therapist Lonnie Barbach in a program run by the USCF. The program was a pre-orgasmic women’s group, a unique blend of therapy and consciousness-raising. As weeks went by, the conversation evolved, and by the third week, the focus shifted to recommending vibrator use. Joani had observed the transformative power of self-exploration with a vibrator in these therapeutic settings.

The groundbreaking aspect was the group dynamic, where women shared their experiences, realizing they weren’t alone in their struggles. The conversation ranged from the systemic issues affecting sexual health to the societal shame surrounding sexual concerns. Joani, hearing repeated reluctance to explore sex shops, decided she needed to create a space where women felt comfortable from the start. Thus, Good Vibrations was born in the Mission district of San Francisco, a tiny store with a big mission.

From its inception, the store featured an Antique Vibrator Museum, initially a humble shelf with six vibrators and a sign proudly declaring it the ‘Antique Vibrator Museum.’ The museum became a public attraction, drawing people in with its unique collection. Joani’s ingenious guerilla marketing strategy relied on curiosity and word of mouth.

The narrative takes an unexpected turn with the introduction of antique vibrators. Joani’s connection with feminist historian Rachel Maines, who unearthed vibrator ads in old women’s magazines, adds a layer of historical significance. These vibrators, marketed as health aids in the past, were a revelation to visitors who thought of them as a recent, edgy phenomenon.

Rachel Maines’ book, ‘The Technologies of Orgasm,’ published around the turn of the millennium, elevated the vibrator collection’s importance. The museum expanded, and today, the collection has grown through donations. People, sometimes discreetly, contribute vibrators, sharing stories of family heirlooms or discoveries in Aunt Millie’s belongings.

Each vibrator is now meticulously displayed, complete with tags indicating their approximate manufacturing dates. From the Polk Street store to online platforms, the Antique Vibrator Museum continues to enlighten visitors about the rich history of sexuality, feminism, and the evolution of sexual technology. It’s not just a collection; it’s a journey through time and a celebration of liberation, empowerment, and the right to pleasure.

Antique Vibrator Museum

Deanaletta: Yeah, I remember at the museum there is also a timeline people can look at and see the historical trajectory of the vibrator, including the influential work Rachel Maines did at uncovering this lost history.

Carol Queen: There is a wonderful documentary made by some documentarians of the Bay area, Passion and Power, I believe it’s called. There’s [also] an off-Broadway play. It was made maybe 15-20 years ago and now it’s been played in so many places, called, In the Next Room: The Vibrator Play, which is the story of a doctor who does these treatments in the late 19th century and his innocent wife who might just have a touch of hysteria herself.

She breaks into the room, figures out what’s going on in there and hijinks ensue. It’s very moving as well as kinda funny and kinda shocking. I think it first premiered at the Berkeley Preparatory Theatre, so we loaned a bunch of vibrators, put them in cases, and showcased them in the lobby, so people could view them. Every once in a while I get invited to talk about it as a discussant.

Deanaletta: Wow, I would love to see that play one day.

Carol Queen: The human relationships in it [the play], there’s a lot going on. I hope you get to see it. At the very least you can probably find the script and read it. There’s a racial component with a wetnurse. It’s very intense in varying ways and the way in which the young wife is portrayed as someone who just doesn’t understand sexuality and how her husband is a doctor.

The whole, “Oh, no. She couldn’t possibly understand.” And you know, women still get minimized in their intellect and capacity today, so it isn’t hard to believe that could happen in a relationship back then. There’s also a man [character] who gets diagnosed with hysteria. Is he a gay man? We aren’t really sure. But he’s an artist. So gender roles are part of this whole coding.
antique vibrator museum

Deanletta: One thing that came up for me as we’re talking about this is just… how did patients conceptualize their experience when the medical professional is telling them it is a strictly professional treatment, etc. Is there any account of what some people were processing?

 

Carol Queen: the history of vibrators and their introduction into the consumer market is a fascinating journey, albeit one shrouded in mystery. When vibrators became available for personal use, documentation on their usage and cultural impact was sparse. Donations to our museum often come with limited information, leaving us with a myriad of unanswered questions.

One significant reason for the scarcity of historical discourse on vibrators as sex toys are rooted in their origin as health devices. Vibrators were initially employed by doctors to treat various ailments, including the infamous diagnosis of hysteria. Health practitioners such as physical therapists, chiropractors, and physicians utilized vibrators to address muscle tension and enhance blood flow, recognizing their role in physiological arousal.

The lack of explicit discourse around sexual experiences with vibrators can be attributed to societal norms, especially during the early 20th century. Women’s expressions about their sexual lives were rarely documented, and if so, often lost to history due to embarrassment or social conventions. The historical record, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, lacks personal narratives and diaries discussing sexual experiences.

Contemporary feminist historical analysis acknowledges a gap in our understanding of how women perceived vibrator use in the past. Some argue that women of the time couldn’t have missed the sexual nature of vibrator experiences, considering the devices as sex toys all along. However, this viewpoint may oversimplify the complex societal structures, limited rights, and education available to women in the 19th century.

Sex education in the 21st century still grapples with profound ignorance, focusing more on restrictions than on understanding sexual arousal and functioning. The assumption that women in the 19th century would have the same understanding of their sexuality as women today is unrealistic, given the historical context of limited education and societal norms.

In exploring potential narratives, one perspective suggests that vibrators handed to women in brothels could have initiated a sex-positive dialogue, allowing some to gain wealth, notoriety, and a degree of power. However, this narrative is contested, emphasizing the diverse experiences within sexual communities, including lesbians, polyamorous individuals, and sex workers who navigated self-betterment situations alongside those with limited choices.

The Eurocentric nature of the narrative acknowledges its limitations, focusing primarily on Europe, the fertile crescent, Greece, and Rome. Questions about sexual diversity in the global south remain largely unanswered, highlighting the need for broader and more diverse knowledge.

As we continue to uncover historical narratives, it becomes clear that the early days of Good Vibes were marked by intriguing myths, such as the belief that Cleopatra’s box was filled with bees, creating an engaging blend of historical anecdotes and contemporary reflections on sexuality.

antique vibrator museum

Deanaletta: This reminds me of something. I think it was @Whoresofyore, but I could be mistaken, who shared a photo circling around of what looked like a human phallus dildo found in an old convent somewhere. And that’s pretty mind-blowing, but you know, not everyone who was there [at the convent] wanted to be there, or live that lifestyle

Carol Queen: Many women in the past found themselves confined to convents, some against their will, due to limited options available to them. Reflecting on the past, it’s tempting to interpret it through our modern understanding, but the reality is more nuanced. While sociocultural elements may be recognizable, we must resist imposing our contemporary discourses on lives that concluded long before our time, especially on topics like sexual issues and women’s sexuality, which were seldom openly discussed or recorded.

My role in curating the museum and exploring this history involves leaning on the remarkable research conducted by Rachel and others. Acknowledging the uncertainties and debates, I often remind myself that none of us knows the absolute truth. Rachel’s well-documented book, ‘The Technologies of Orgasm,’ provides a structured foundation for our narrative.

antique vibrator museum

By the late teens in the U.S. and Europe, porn depicted vibrator use, challenging the notion that people only recognized vibrators as sexual items in the 1960s. Brothels might have fostered a different discourse, with connections emerging between the world of porn and the experiences of sex workers. Vibrators began appearing in the media, suggesting a growing awareness of their sexual potential.

In the 1930s, vibrators were openly available in drug stores, yet they were not publicly acknowledged as sexual items. Doctors, who had once treated hysteria with vibrators, distanced themselves from the practice by the end of the 1920s. The Kinsey report in the early 1950s, along with earlier porn research, prompted the American Medical Association to acknowledge the misunderstanding around hysteria, marking a significant shift in discourse. The development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and the evolving understanding of mental health further contributed to this transformation.

The feminist vibrator revolution of today mirrors a century-old shift, with a focus on sexual health and acceptance. While current discussions include sexual pleasure and sexuality, sexual health has found more mainstream acceptability. However, the future remains uncertain, with questions about potential shifts in societal attitudes towards sexual issues.

The history encapsulated in our museum stands as a testament to the diverse experiences within various communities and identities. It is a reminder that those outside the mainstream often find their histories underrepresented and underscores the importance of preserving and sharing these narratives

 

antique vibrator museum

Deanaletta: Is it just me, or does the history of the vibrator seem surrounded by a lot of mystery? I recall hearing things growing up, like the denial that doctors ever used vibrators to help patients achieve orgasms. But then you visit a museum, and there’s this illustration of a man lifting a lady’s skirt with a demure look on her face. It makes you wonder about the real story behind it all.

Carol Queen: On the museum timeline, you may have noticed the ancient roots of treating hysteria, dating back to Greece, where doctors believed the wandering uterus caused trouble. The initial remedy was hand massage, but doctors, exhausted from the task, trained midwives to assist. This peculiar historical chapter unfolded during the Industrial Revolution, aligning with the emergence of the vibrator as a labor-saving device for doctors treating hysteria. The first vibrator operated like clockwork, marking an interesting transition. The concept of making and selling items like vibrators became intertwined with early capitalism, reflecting the broader narrative of inventiveness for profit.

Vibrators by familiar names like Hamilton Beach were widely accepted and marketed beyond sexual use. Not everyone associated them with personal pleasure initially. The early perspective often focused on health benefits, as evidenced by Hamilton Beach’s publication, “Health and How to Get It,” which prescribed vibrator usage for various conditions. In 1917, electric vibrators outnumbered electric toasters in homes, showcasing their diverse applications—from treating diseases to addressing issues like hemorrhoids or tuberculosis.


Deanaletta: What has been the most surprising aspect of being a part of this project?

Carol Queen: To me, it’s the pushback. This doesn’t come from museum visitors, but from a few academics mainly, who disagree with Maines’s research and conclusions. But she researched this history for over 20 years, and that’s not the case with the people who have a different narrative they ascribe to. Honestly, there are things that will likely never be known, and I think we all have to be okay with that.

 Deanaletta: Why do we need an Antique Vibrator Museum? What makes this space so special and dare I say sacred?

Carol Queen: The history of sexuality and sex-adjacent things is evanescent. There has been so much shame, pushback, and erasure. To grasp even a small bit of it like this is powerful! I think that’s what makes it so special and why we need to have access to our past in this way. It shines quite a different light on our present than thinking that vibes were invented as part of the sexual revolution or something.

 Deanaletta: What do you hope visitors will come away with after leaving the museum?

Carol Queen: Awareness that sex isn’t just a modern invention! And that history truly holds surprising twists and turns.

Deanaletta: How can we keep the conversation going? (Around sexuality, liberation, exploration, and identity).

Carol Queen: Before I say how I’ll say why we must! This is a terrifically fraught time for sexuality in the public sphere. It has very powerful enemies right now.

This conversation is a way to refuse the silencing they would like to impose. So, how: Talk to others about sexuality, history, and our relevant freedoms. Write about it and make art about it. Show up to protest, make sure your political representatives know how you feel, and support people who are under attack for their sexual views or identities. As Mother Jones said, Don’t mourn, organize!

 

Carol Queen Deanaletta Seif

After that gracious interview with Carol Queen, I must end by stating if the winds of fate ever guide you to San Francisco, make a pilgrimage to the Antique Vibrator Museum. Amidst the historical artifacts, you’ll unearth unexpected revelations about the intertwined threads of sexuality, feminism, and mental health. Allow the magic of this place to seep into your soul, leaving you not just with knowledge but, perhaps, with newfound inspiration.