Sometimes it seems like sex toys were invented in 2002. In fact, they’ve been around for millennia. From carved dildos decorating the streets of Pompeii to the first strap-on to hand-crank vibrators, here are the sex toys that will make you glad you just have to sit back, relax, and select priority shipping.
In 2015, a 28,000-year-old siltstone phallus from the ice age was discovered in Germany. Nicholas Conrad, lead investigator at the site, suggested that it was symbolic of male genitalia (based on markings) but also could have been used for knapping flints. It is currently the oldest known potential sex toy in human history. Archaeologists cannot definitively effort that went into finely polishing this tool shows that it was definitely loved. In The Prehistory of Sex, Timothy L. Taylor states that some ice age batons had explicit symbols carved into them.
Ancient Greece had well-documented uses of dildos and other sex toys (most famously, probably the olisbo-kollix) for any gender’s pleasure. Carved stone phalluses decorating the streets were immortalized in Pompeii in what researchers suspect was an ancient advertisement.
According to Woman by Herman Heinrich Ploss, Max Bartels, and Paul Bartels, the Araucanian people in South America would strap a small bundle of horsehair to stimulate their partner’s clitoris during sex. This bundle was called a geskel and was crafted by the women in the tribe, showing that sexual pleasure was not only talked about, but prioritized.
The remnants of the Chinese aristocrat’s tomb that were put on display for the Tomb Treasures exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco was a glimpse into what pleasures in life this aristocrat wanted to preserve in death. The final gallery of the exhibit showed “bathing, beautification, and sexual aids,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Found in the tomb were two hollow bronze phalluses. One had a ring attached that suggests it was a strap-on dildo.
In the early 1800s during the industrial revolution, vibrators were marketed as general wellness machines that could cure a variety of ailments. Steam-powered Manipulators were the first device of their kind to hit the market in the mid-1880s and were the only product of their type that was honest about their intended usage.
Hand-crank vibrators swiftly followed. Advertised as powerful personal massagers originally made to relieve pain in men, any lay person might have looked at these cumbersome devices and believed the story. The copy for the advertisements compared with other ads of the time offer a nudge and a wink to the savvy consumer. Illustrated women were depicted using these hand-crank vibrators to massage their chests (though never their breasts) in revealing eveningwear.
While the copywriters of the time might have assumed these devices were being used as sex toys, in The Victorian Guide to Sex, Fern Riddell maintains that these sex toys masquerading as massagers were actually widely used for their intended purposes: massages. Victorians have a reputation for being sexually repressed, but as evident through widely distributed pamphlets, within the bounds of marriage they understood that mutual pleasure was important not only to conceive children, but also to build happy partnerships. If they used marital aids, they were likely bespoke carved dildos.
In 1904, the first inflatable dolls were such a hit that they began mass production four years later. The doll could be made to look like anyone, alive or dead.
In the 1900s, vibrators were marketed as essential home appliances with wild claims such as “Relieves All Suffering” and “Cures Disease” without much further explanation on product usage. These vibrators were widely advertised until the 1920s, when erotic films shed light on how they were actually being used. From then on, vibrators were marketed as “personal massagers” once more to help hide their bedroom application.
In San Francisco, Joani Blank opened Good Vibrations in 1977. The fact that Blank was a woman, and a renowned sex therapist, made browsing for sex toys more approachable. In the 1980s, pro-sex feminist Betty Dodson famously popularized the Hitachi Magic Wand as a tool for orgasm. Her demonstrations educated women on how to embrace their pleasure and how masturbation is part of a well-rounded sex life.
In the 1990s, Sex and the City helped to spur the success of the Rabbit, which was made in the image of a cute animal due to profanity laws regarding novelty toys in Japan that are still in play today. Seeing Charlotte become obsessed with the Rabbit caused a boom in not only Rabbit sales, but also the company’s other toys like the Kangaroo and the Seal.
The 1990s also saw the invention of the Fleshlight through a think tank investment of $50,000 to make a sex toy that felt real for men. Through creator Steve Shubin’s campaign to destigmatize masturbation for men, the Fleshlight sales ballooned into one of the largest providers of penis-based sex toys.
As time passes, more women-, queer-, and trans-focused sex products and shops make purchasing sex toys less intimidating and more inviting. Take Dame, a company whose products are created by women for women. Or queer-owned Cute Little Fuckers, which designs non-representational sex toys for all genders.
By increasingly embracing the same design and technology ethos that characterizes less stigmatized industries, the market has opened up to great new ideas and potential for growth. According to Forbes, the sleek and sultry marketing of sex toys has evolved into a $15 billion industry. Looking back is a great reminder of how far we’ve come.