Whether you catch ‘em all like Pokémon or leave them neatly packaged in the sex shop, vibrators and dildos are ubiquitous in our culture. While these toys have almost always looked similar and performed the same functions, vibrators and dildos actually have very different stories that ultimately led to what we know today: pink, plastic, rabbit-shaped, and potentially hundreds of dollars.
Long before anyone was getting off by humping silicone, the ancient Greeks used other materials to achieve the same end. Author and historian Paul Chrystal literally wrote the book on ancient Greek sex, called In Bed With The Ancient Greeks: Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Greece. He told Complex that because Greeks didn’t have all that contemporary baggage about sex—and no documented taboo regarding sex toys—they had a lot of fun.
Before they made use of other materials, ancient Greeks used bread to pleasure themselves sexually. Chrystal described these “dildo-like breadsticks” which were lubricated with—what else?—olive oil. Delicious!
References to leather dildos and double-ended dildos appear in literature and art, but for all their prevalence and the Greeks’ apparent sexual openness, there were strict rules about who could use a dildo on whom. Namely, women weren’t allowed to penetrate men, because penetrating was (and often still is) perceived as a masculine act. Chrystal explained that it’s likely men used dildos more often than women did overall.
Centuries later, the bawdy bard himself—William Shakespeare—slipped a dildo reference into one of his plays. In The Winter’s Tale, Act 3: Scene 4, a servant described a peddler who had just stopped by “with such delicate burthens of dildos and fadings, ‘jump her and thump her.’” And no, dildo didn’t have a different meaning back then, he was actually talking about pleasuring women with a phallic sex toy.
While the dildo is literally as old as phallic rocks, the vibrator is a more recent invention and needs electric or battery power to operate. Vibrators were originally devised for sinister and downright invasive purposes, by doctors who wanted to use them to treat “hysterical” women patients.
The practice of massaging women’s genitals to stimulate orgasm and treat various “problems” said to be caused by sexual deprivation began with Hippocrates in 5th century B.C. But it wasn’t until the Victorian era that one of the first vibrators was invented. One of the first models, called the tremoussoir, was created in 1734 France, and used by doctors to treat women diagnosed with hysteria.
The tremoussoir made it to the United States by the 1750s—which was before the Constitution had even been written. Colonists were getting down with vibrators before they got around to the Bill of Rights. Vibrators were still strictly medical devices, though, and “hysterical” women were advised to try home treatments, like riding a horse or marrying a really horny man.
Starting 1899, battery-operated vibrators were marketed and sold as as “home appliances”—you know, like a washing machine or blender! And like most products geared toward women, manufacturers promised that vibrators would enhance beauty. A 1906 American Vibrator Company advertisement said that their appliance could “furnish every woman with the essence of perpetual youth.”
Vibe to stay alive, ladies.
With the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s also came the first ever Hitachi magic wand, often hailed as the “Cadillac of vibrators.” The Hitachi—which is still marketed as a personal massage device—made its way to the market in 1970 and remains one of the best-selling vibrators out there. The '70s also spurred the first vibrator designed to give both internal and external stimulation: the Niagara Hand Unit (Model 11).
Around the same time, Gosnell Duncan was working on perfecting the silicone dildo many know and love today. After Duncan sustained a serious injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down in 1965, he became active in the disability movement and realized he wasn’t the only one who wanted better and safer options for penile substitutes. In the late '60s and early '70s, sex toys were made of rubber and low-quality; they couldn’t handle a good washing or withstand much heat before losing their structural integrity.
At that time, dildos were only sold as medical aids, and only for the purposes of helping out straight couples with their sex lives, as in Duncan’s case (his then-girlfriend married him while he was still hospitalized for his injuries). But still Duncan forged ahead, working with a chemist to create silicone dildos. While the initial purpose of the silicone dildo was to help people with disabilities have better sex, they became immensely popular for helping anyone have better sex.
These days, people can’t get enough sex toys. As of 2015, the sex toy industry was worth $15 billion, in no small thanks to mainstream depictions of non-vanilla sex, including the Fifty Shades of Grey book and film franchise, which inspired a surge of kink and BDSM exploration.
As for what people buying vibrators and dildos are looking for, a 2015 study for the International Society for Sexual Medicine found that most products marketed for vaginal or anal insertion are about the same size and circumference as the average penis In 2014, sex toy shop Adam and Eve revealed that 14 of their top 25 best-selling dildos were shaped like penises. So the art of sex toys more or less imitates life.
In many ways, phallic sex toys have remained very much the same throughout time, at least in terms of shape and overall intended use, but it’s clear that they’ve also played an important role in shaping sexuality as a sociological subject. Vibrators that were once used by doctors to oppress women are now celebrated in pop culture (remember Charlotte’s love affair with her Rabbit in Sex and the City?). Ancient dildos were mostly for dudes, but now they come in so many shapes, sizes, and colors, and are seen as casual fixtures in many a person’s bedside table.
No matter how you look at them (or where you insert them), vibrators and dildos have come a long way since the breadstick and olive oil days of ancient Greece, which is definitely a good thing.