Sex. Masturbation. Oral stimulation. Everyone does it, even your ancestors (we know, no one wants to think about grandma getting it on — though she did). But when it comes to sex toys, we tend to lump them in with more modern inventions, like the blender or the microwave. However, adult sex toys have actually been around, in one form or another, for thousands of years — yes, there were ancient sex toys. Don’t believe us? Keep reading to learn about the often surprising and “buzzy” history of sex toys.
The Upper Paleolithic Period: The Maybe, Possibly First Dildo
In 2005, archaeologists found a penis-shaped object in Germany’s Hohle Fels cave dating back nearly 28,000 years. The highly polished siltstone was over 7½ inches long and rounded at the end like a penis. While some believe it was used to shape flint, its polished appearance suggests it may have actually been used as a prehistoric, ancient sex toy.
3rd Century: The Han Dynasty’s Jade Butt Plugs
During China’s Han Dynasty (sometime around 206 BCE and 220 CE), people cherished their sex toys. In excavations, it was found that wealthy elites owned bespoke bronze dildos and even jade butt plugs. However, at the time, the butt plugs were used by embalmers to prevent “the loss of vital essences.” It was believed that jade could ward off spiritual and bodily decay.
6th Century: A Time Of Sexual Indulgence
Ah yes, those horny, horny ancient Greeks. Painted wine vessels from the time show ancient Greeks using dildos, alongside images of everyday life, of course. In addition to this, ancient sex toys are mentioned in the comedic “Lysistrata,” written by Aristophanes in 411 BCE. It translates as follows:
“And so, girls, when f****** time comes… not the faintest whiff of it anywhere, right? From the time those Milesians betrayed us, we can’t even find our eight-fingered leather dildos. At least they’d serve as a sort of flesh-replacement for our poor c****…”
– Aristophanes, Lysistrata
13th Century: The First Cock Ring
In 13th-century China, the first cock ring was invented. Made of an elastic goat eyelid, this cock ring gripped the base of the penis to keep blood trapped so the user could maintain an erection. The goat’s eyelashes remained attached for the female’s pleasure. Old-school sex toys like this remain surprisingly popular in certain corners of the world, but we suggest checking out the more modern variety of cock rings available.
17th Century: Japanese Erotica
Starting in the 16th century and lasting well into the 20th century, the art of shunga was created for both joy and education. This artistic genre involved a series of woodblock prints that illustrated all types of lovemaking and sexual activity in graphic detail. One particular scene depicts two nude women applying lubricant to a large strap-on dildo, or “harigata.” The commonly used harigata simply slid on top of the penis to give the impression of a bigger and harder member.
While shunga was banned by the Japanese Shogunate in 1722, it didn’t slow production or circulation. Today, shunga is considered an impressive example of pre-modern erotic art. It remains a testament to uninhibited, open-minded and consensual sex.
19th Century: Medical Masturbation
Jumping a few years forward in sex toy history, we come to the Victorian Period. In 1883, an English physician named Joseph Mortimer Granville supposedly invented an electric vibrator to treat (read: masturbate) “hysterical” (read: horny or sexually frustrated) women. It should be noted that, while not patented until 1869, American physician Dr. George Taylor used a similar machine in America and France at this time. Taylor’s invention was a steam-powered vibrator design called the Manipulator. While many attribute Cleopatra with inventing the first vibrator, it’s never actually been proven and thus, the honor instead goes to Dr. Taylor and Mr. Granville.
While important to the history of sex toys, Taylor’s massage and vibratory apparatus was bulky and simplistic, consisting of a padded table with a jumpy steam engine and phallic object attached. The invention was created for spas and doctor’s offices with the goal of treating women with “female disorders” and pseudoscientific ailments.
Soon, a range of “massaging apparatuses” would become available to physicians. From foot-pumped machines to hand-cranked vibrators and electromechanical devices, designs ran the gamut throughout the late 1800s and into the early 20th century. It was only in the early 20th century that these massaging devices were distanced from the medical world and made their way into homes around the country.
*Note that the idea that physicians used these vibrating machines to masturbate women remains a theory and has never been definitively proven.
1920s-1960: The “Beauty” Massager
Around the 1920s, personal massagers started gaining more popularity as various electric models labeled as “beauty aids” hit the market. From the Polar Club Electric Vibrator to the Andis Vibrator to the Rolling Pin Heat Massager, these portable devices featured textured knobs or attachments used to circulate the blood. Since we can assume that most people wouldn’t own up to the fact that they used these vibrators on their vaginas or breasts, it’s hard to say how many purchased the devices as beauty aids versus sex toys. But, it’s clear that folks were using these vibrators to stimulate more than just their scalps.
By the 1920s, vibrators began showing up in early porn films. Ads for beauty aid vibrators were then pulled from magazines, and physicians ceased using them in their practices. And by 1952, the American Psychiatric Association voted to completely remove the term “hysteria” from all medical texts.
Vibrator designs continued to evolve and change from the 1920s through 1960, without any major innovations.
1960s-1970s: The Age Of Sexual Liberation
In the 70s, the idea of vibrators as sex aids officially went mainstream. During the 60s and 70s, the birth control pill became widely available, and with it, attitudes toward premarital sex and masturbation relaxed. There were even women-only masturbation workshops led by American sex educator Betty Dodson. The workshops taught women to regain their sexual self-knowledge through masturbation. And the proposed sexual aid at the time was that of the Magic Wand. This bad boy, often called the “Cadillac of Vibrators,” soon became one of the most popular vibrators of all time.
“Masturbation is the ongoing love affair that each of us has with ourselves throughout our lifetime.”
– Betty Dodson, Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving
Despite the strides that were made during this time, it was still a dark time in the history of sex toys — masturbation remained quite stigmatized in the US, and in some places, it was even considered criminal. Texas passed an “Obscene Device Law” in 1973, prohibiting devices designed or marketed for stimulating human genitalia. To get around these laws, companies began marketing vibrators as “personal massagers.”
1980s-1990s: The Years of the Rabbit
In 1983, Japanese company Vibratex released The Rabbit Vibrator. The design was unique in that it provided both penetration and clitoral stimulation. To get around strict obscenity laws in Japan, the Rabbit, along with the company’s other sex toys, were created using bright colors and whimsical animal shapes. The Rabbit was eventually featured on an episode of “Sex and the City,” helping to boost its popularity into the public consciousness.
Today: Sex Toys for All (with Lingering Stigmas)
Even though many strides have been made in the long history of sex toys, the taboo, unfortunately, remains firmly in place as stigmas and double-standards continue to be associated with sex toys in places around the world.
Despite all this, sex toys are more popular than ever and can now be purchased in mainstream stores and online websites, so you never even have to leave your home. Adult sex toys are continually evolving, and innovations are making toys smarter than ever before. From Bluetooth devices to eco-friendly rechargeable vibrators and pocket-sized vibes, there are now thousands of incredible sex toys for women and couples to choose from. Even glass dildos are available for lovers to enjoy. It’s a brave (and sexy) new world, folks.
Be Part of The History of Sex Toys with the Help of PinkCherry
At PinkCherry, we’re all about helping you get the sheet-grabbing, hair-clutching sexual pleasure you deserve — it’s what your ancestors would have wanted. We might not have any ancient sex toys, but you can find the latest and greatest in our selection of anal toys, vibrators, dildos, nipple sex toys and more. Create your own sex toy history today!