Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women, which is today no longer recognized by modern medical authorities as a medical disorder. Its diagnosis and treatment were routine for many hundreds of years in Western Europe. Hysteria was widely discussed in the medical literature of the 19th century. Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”.
Since ancient times women considered to be suffering from hysteria would sometimes undergo “pelvic massage” — manual stimulation of the genitals by the doctor until the patient experienced “hysterical paroxysm“.
A physician in 1859 claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. One physician cataloged 75 pages of possible symptoms of hysteria and called the list incomplete, almost any ailment could fit the diagnosis. Physicians thought that the stresses associated with modern life caused civilized women to be both more susceptible to nervous disorders and to develop faulty reproductive tracts. In America, such disorders in women reaffirmed that the United States was on par with Europe; one American physician expressed pleasure that the country was ”catching up” to Europe in the prevalence of hysteria.
Cases were quite profitable for physicians, since the patients were at no risk of death, but needed constant treatment. The only problem was that physicians did not enjoy the tedious task of vaginal massage generally referred to as pelvic massage’ The technique was difficult for a physician to master and could take hours to achieve “hysterical paroxysm.” Referral to midwives, which had been common practice, meant a loss of business for the physician. The Chaise Longue and Fainting couch became popular home furniture to make women more comfortable during home treatment. Fainting rooms were also used for more privacy during home treatment.
A solution was the invention of massage devices, which shortened treatment from hours to minutes, removing the need for midwives and increasing a physician’s treatment capacity. Already at the beginning of the 19th century, hydrotherapy devices were available at Bath, and by the mid-19th century, they were popular at many high-profile bathing resorts across Europe and in America. By 1870, a clockwork-driven vibrator was available for physicians. In 1873, the first electromechanical vibrator was used at an asylum in France for the treatment of hysteria. While physicians of the period acknowledged that the disorder stemmed from sexual dissatisfaction, they seemed unaware of or unwilling to admit the sexual purposes of the devices used to treat it. In fact, the introduction of the speculum was far more controversial than that of the vibrator.
By the 20th century, the spread of home electricity brought the vibrator to the consumer market. The appeal of cheaper treatment in the privacy of one’s own home understandably made the vibrator a popular early home appliance. In fact, the electric home vibrator was on the market before many other home appliance ’essentials’, nine years before the electric vacuum cleaner and 10 years before the electric iron. A page from a Sears catalog of home electrical appliances from 1918 includes a portable vibrator with attachments, billed as ”Very useful and satisfactory for home service.”
Today, female hysteria is no longer a recognized illness, but different manifestations of hysteria are recognized in other conditions such as schizophrenia, conversion disorder, and anxiety attacks.