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History of Erotic Inventions

You won't find the history of erotic inventions during the Industrial Revolution in a classroom textbook.

By Filthy StaffPublished 8 years ago 17 min read

A technological age that sends men to the moon and drains gas from the seabeds—among other feats—shows a surprising lack of invention in enriching the intimate life of 20th century man. H. G. Wells, if he were to peruse the catalogues of the Western world's proliferating sex shops, would be appalled at the scant originality revealed. In both hardware (metal and wooden tools of sex) and software (creams and stimulants) the century offers strikingly little that is genuinely new. The only important exception was the electric vibrator, named by the Danish sexologists Sten & Inge Hegeler as the No. 1 must for the erotic couple. The vibrator must be accorded the palm as the 20th century's principal contribution to eroticism.

For the golden age of sexual invention, however, one must look back to the period of the Industrial Revolution. History records that it was the British who set the pace in technological breakthroughs during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but history has been more reticent in adding that it was also the British who made use of every material discovery to create new sexual sensations. Their remarkable pragmatism in this field is one of the factors that make the Victorians such a fascinating subject of sexual study.

Even industrial machinery designed for quite other purposes was noticed by brothel keepers for its erotic potential. They bought it and transferred it to their own premises when it became redundant. In some cases, the machinery design was such that it could be used for kicks even in the factory, and when this was so, workers weren't slow to take advantage. The whole period provides an instructive comparison between British and European (particularly French) approaches to sex: The British approach was colder, more scientific, more experimental, while the French were more joyful, sensuous, and natural. The French wrote more widely about sex and produced more pornography, but the British produced the engineering eccentricities and the stuff of the "perversions."

England was the first country in the world to have a modern industrial revolution, and its cotton industry was affected earliest. Inventions and inventors proliferated from about 1730 in all phases of cotton production, including the drawing-frame and fly-frame processes which prepare the material for spinning, but especially in spinning itself. Arkwright (the spinning jenny), Farmer (the base-loom), Wilkinson (the high power loom), and a host of others were the men whose devices were exploited to set up profitable new industry in Lancashire and south Scotland. Women and children became the staple labour to work these new iron monsters, which rapidly superseded one another as new machines came on the market.

Levers for Relief

One curious feature the machines seemed to have in common was noted by a contemporary journalist named Robert Moynihan. They all possessed one or more "levers or other sundry projections" not in constant use on the machine, "which the women and children on instruction to use in-twixt times for rubbing themselves over their bodies, and particularly their private parts." Moynihan, one of many Irish observers of the English scene, and apparently a would-be industrial sociologist, found this masturbation a regular activity in nearly all the mills he visited. It was, he reported, a recognized pursuit of leisure for the hard worked masses who toiled up to 15 hours a day at their "mules" (as the spinners were called).

"These cotton women," observed Moynihan, "place the redundant lever between their thighs and massage themselves between outstretched legs, as the lever is emoted, protruded, wangled, and juggled by her private parts and the noisy movements of the mule itself." His accounts give an impression of 18th century libertarianism and reasonableness on the part of the new employers not to be gained from textbook histories of the period, including the standard analyses of R. H. Tawney and the Hammonds (perhaps because of the Socialist views of these authors). The great smoky ill lit halls into which the machines were crowded may have failed by Factory Acts standards of a later age, and the top-hatted male overseers may occasionally have been sadistic with their cane slivers. But one might guess that by the 1770s or 1780s, many of the women, driven into the towns by economic pressures, were experiencing sexual pleasures much more intense than their rural rides. Though Moynihan himself doesn't talk about orgasms, the scenes of mass onanism backed by the vice of unbridled and unlicensed gin-drinking at the work-benches, must have produced climaxes on the scale of the orgiastic rites of distant Bacchus or Dionysus.

Crude as this public masturbation may have been, it can be viewed as a limited kind of emancipation for women. Women's Lib author Eva Figes, in her book Patriarchal Attitudes, has tried to argue that the pre-Industrial Revolution period was one of comparative equality for women, but at least industrialization taught women, in the unlikely setting of a factory, how to achieve sexual ecstasy.

Photo via Daily Mail

Iron Revolution

The iron revolution also changed the range of brothel activities, from the time of the great brothel patron and statesman Charles James Fox through the 19th century. For the resting-place of many pieces of factory plant was a great series of fashionable and expensive establishments. Well before Queen Victoria's reign, the habit of adapting obsolete machinery was established. Word had apparently reached the leading madams of the day that the mules, the jennys, the frames, and other spinning paraphernalia had already proved their sexual potential. In one transaction, reported in the 1770s, Lord Wharton, notorious Georgian rake and a member of the orgiastic Medmenham set, sold a self-acting mule spinner—of a sort still used today in Lancashire cotton towns—to a Mrs. Molly King. He charged her 200 guineas, having himself paid £20 for it, but Mrs. King—a Drury Lane hostess and procuress—said of the purchase: "It will profit me many times."

Casanova didn't much enjoy his sex life in England to judge from his Memoirs, but one thing he did like was the iron orgy given regularly by such as Mrs. Stanhope, Mrs. Gould, Mrs. Goadby, Mrs. Charlotte Hayes, and other would-be theatrical impresarios. In fully rehearsed sets, regiments of hired women, mainly freelance prostitutes and actresses, took part. They lined up to masturbate at row upon row of cotton machines arranged in factory fashion, a spectacle we might now see as a kind of early parody on the Industrial Revolution (unintended consequences of).

Compared with such elaborate affairs, the Continent in those days had little to offer, except in writing. In theatrical sex, the Marquis de Sade led a wanton field, and the Encyclopedists wrote articles about sex. Casanova and other practical exponents took up the Renaissance positions of the earlier Italian expert Aretino. But Britain's iron-and-cotton revolution kept her way ahead in sexual technology. Britain was the first country to manufacture, in bulk, many aids for the impotent, using new developments in iron smelting. Erection devices fitting the corona glandis of the penis (keeping the blood pressure high where it might otherwise fail) had been made before in gold, silver, and occasionally in an inferior iron, but in the late 18th century in Staffordshire came assembly-line "crown rings." Penile splints—used to allow a flaccid penis entrance into the vagina—were also made in iron in the same factories, after a long history of wood.

Sale agreements for these goods, Iwan Bloch tells us, were made direct between manufacturer and brothel manager—there were no sex shops then to act as intermediaries. Besides, as the goods were purpose-built, no hardware stores would stock them. Heinrich Kisch, in a book The Sexual Life of Woman published in 1910, praises the English for their ingenuity and "iron determination" to end the plight of the impotent.

Image via Vibe Mistress

Suiting a Necrophiliacs Needs

A taste for necrophilia has existed at least since the time of the ancient Egyptian civilizations, when sexual intercourse with a recently deceased corpse was sometimes part of funeral ritual. By 1885, when W. T. Stead exposed the intercontinental white slave traffic in his Pall Mall Gazette and a special committee reported its findings on the workings of prostitution, the taste had become deritualized. It was catered for by the iron coffin, and without involving corpses. The iron coffin, meant for burying the dead, was not successful in its primary market. The Darby Method iron coffin was a hit for a few years when it first came out, but it didn't last. Its erotic possibilities had, however, been noted as early as the 1760s by the Medmenham set, or Hellfire Club, led by Sir Francis Dashwood. They acquired coffins of less "pure" iron for some of their sexual encounters, especially with London actresses who could effectively pretend they were dead.

The contemporaneous Town & Country magazine noted that this intercourse with the "artificial dead" in the "new modiste coffin ware" was a satire on the old Christian witchcraft ceremonies as well as a "temptation to the Devil to take them all." It feared the new necromancy might become fashionable outside Medmenham's abbey. In fact, the phase of necromancy was short-lived, but the iron coffin was more popular in the brothel by the end of the century than it was in the graveyard. Bon Ton magazine's reporter found a dozen houses within walk of Drury Lane which had installed iron coffins. He had heard of many more in London, Liverpool, and Edinburgh which had been hired with the option of purchase.

The taste for necrophilia hardware quickened during the 19th century. Madame Berthe, a great experimenter in brothel furnishings and custom made pleasurable devices in the early Victorian period, was reported by Le Figaro in 1839 as follows: "I do not know any house of note which admits men of character and wealth and yet does not possess somewhere, principally in the basements or on the mezzanine because of the awful weight of these objects (never would be buried in one), several ferrous coffins for men and women to lay in, where the women for the most part have to appear as naked dead, often brutally murdered. The idea—the men do not have to care for the safety or the responses of their companion-belongs to the last century, yet is always more asked for by the clientele."

Foreigners were demanding them, too. By 1851, the date of the historic Great Exhibition, which displayed British industrial achievements, iron coffin exports to Europe were enough to keep several Staffordshire and Derbyshire makers in business. There is no doubt from some accounts of Iwan Bloch that these loads were destined for immediate delivery to brothels and not to burial undertakers, because no Continental country ever veered from traditional woods as the proper material for burial. Also, domestic demand had almost ceased, as the iron lasted well, even when stored in the dampness of the cellar.

Many overseas observers of the English sexual scene noted with surprise that the so-progressive and forward-looking English still used old process and old-fashioned inventions in their best bordellos. But the English had invented the taste, as well as the material thing to satisfy it, and since the material still satisfied the taste, why change it? As Madame Berthe remarked to a German journalist: "I have tried to introduce the coffins in other light-process metals [she didn't say which], but my clients will not tolerate them. They say the blackness and heaviness of the iron gives a hurtful quality to their sensations." Under English influence, the fine shrouding silks, funereal Oriental design masks, and white paints which variously adorned the pretended corpse for the Continental necrophiliac of the 1840s and earlier were transformed in the 1850s to the single iron coffin, lying in state on a table, unattired lady within, according to French expert Taxil. Hardware had triumphed over software and it was to London that men looked for the fashions of sexual inventiveness, while women looked to Paris for their fashion inspiration.

Photo via iCollector

Beginning of Ben-Wa Balls

Going back farther, what of the origins of "wanglers," "balls-and-chain" or "ben-wa"—great orgasm aids for women. Credit is hard to ascribe, with conflicting claims from both English and Japanese (as well as China, but she is less vocal about her responsibility). The basic idea is two balls joined by a band, which are inserted into the vagina; when the woman rocks herself back and forward, one ball knocks against the other and both massage the walls of the vagina, while the inner ball strokes the cervix. The sensations are carried over the entire female sexual zone, giving multiple orgasms to some. Dr. David Reuben, in his Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask, attributes this simple masturbation tool to Japanese women of "several centuries ago." The outer ball, he claims, was filled with mercury—"The mercury slides back and forth in the outer ball, constantly nudging the inner ball against the cervix."

But there are a number of references in Elizabethan literature which seem to make the English claim at least as strong. Sir Philip Sidney is one writer who mentions "a pair of globes entered into a woman at home, for pleasure" and these are termed balls-and-chain. Moreover, mercury does not seem to have been extractable anywhere before the 18th century (at least in the modern world) and then the source countries were not available to Japan. For it was in Spain and Italy that the main finds of cinnabar, the ore of mercury, were made. And it was to England that much of this ore was exported in the early 19th century, mainly for scientific instrument making. Certain stock-in/stock-out records of brothel proprietresses indicate, however, that it was also for the filling of the outer globe of the ball-and-chain device. Earliest models were iron balls, very smooth, linked by a chain also very smooth. By the 1870s most were of steel, while the mercury was added at the turn of a handle. Sometimes the chain-link was given a rubberized coating.

Mrs. Sarah Potter, one of the multiple owners of London brothels in mid 19th century, liked to cater to her voyeur clientele. She arranged special non-participant sessions in which her favorite employees drew themselves up in massive arched rocking chairs, with dresses and girdles suitably undone and legs splayed open, their feet being placed on the elongated sides of the chair. They would then delicately introduce the "ben-was," as hostess Mrs. Potter called them, rocking with them and often passing several climaxes before satisfying the eyes and ears of the invited audience.

Image via Dazed Digital

Finding Rubber Fetishism

According to Havelock Ellis, perhaps the first sexologist of modern times, rubber fetishism was also a completely English development, though his own opinion of the development was not high. This was a by-product of British initiative in establishing rubber plantations of their own in Malaya. Neither Spain nor Portugal, discovering the sticky liquid flowing among the Amerindians of the South American continent, apparently harnessed the find to much purpose, except a messy kind of glue. The rain and damp of England may have proved a greater incentive to rubber research than it had in the Mediterranean countries, for it was a James Templeton of London, among others, who looked into and appreciated the waterproofing quality of latex. This, incidentally, was in the 1830s, a few years only before the American pioneer Arthur Goodyear vulcanized crude rubber with sulphur and made possible the modern motor tyre (which is however irrelevant to modern rubber fetishism!).

From then on, commercial development of soft rubber included the enuretic's bed-wetting mattress, the plain sheet long mackintosh, the diving suit, flex-gloves, and assorted mass produced condoms, dildos etc. Britain was the first country to manufacture these items, doing so in great quantities and exporting them to Europe and America. Several different enterprises took control of the various sections of the expanding industry, and factories shot up in both east and west London. No patents seem to have interfered with the capitalization on the basic latex-sheet invention.

Who really knows how a rubber fetish comes about? Even the now defunct Rubber Internationalwhich Gillian Freeman in her book The Undergrowth of Literature called the most academic of all the fetish magazineshad no explanations, though the editor was often scathing about the puerile ones that poured in from readers. Krafft-Ebing, the German authority on sexual "perversions" in the 19th century, author of Psychopathia Sexualis, had no doubt that the trigger was the enuretic's rubber mattress and the nanny's elastic rubber gloves, the new way of keeping the hands clean. This gave rise to the "infantile craving for rubber dress wear if sexual performance is to be achieved, perhaps at all." Havelock Ellis agreed that it was the combination of "wetted, smelling, rubber blankets, and the attentions of nanny or equivalent."

How many seemed to survive the fetish despite the use of rubber in the home is not explained by these learned men. For even by the 1890s only a small selection of London brothels catered for the taste, according to the London Spy Annual of the time. In these, however, "the ladies parade in the fashion of small army regiments, with an attire of stripped latex, often with rubber masks in the style of nurses' protection against infection, delighting the audience which later follows them to the rooms of assignation."

Today, the rubber fetish, helped by rubber-goods manufacturing throughout the world and underpinned by specialist magazines and a scattering of rubber stores and correspondence clubs, has spread over most of the civilized globe. Britain, Germany, and the United States seem to be the countries most affected by it. The rubber fetish did not originate in rubber's countries of origin, in the plantations: It needed a civilizing influence to produce this particular content or discontent.

Author Peter Fryer has given an account of the development of the condom, mainly describing its importance in birth controlling and in relation to VD of course, in his book The Birth Controllers. He gives many of the older recipes for making them, some very ancient, and finds himself still unable to show proof that an Englishman named Condom, Condum, Conton, Condon (or any other variation) ever made in the 17th century the design breakthrough he is popularly credited with. It does seem, though, that the condom was known in England well before the Industrial Revolution, and certainly mass-production of vulcanized rubber condoms, which began towards the end of the 19th century, was at its greatest in Britain.

Birth of the Berkley Horse

In London in 1828, a leading brothel proprietress, procuress, and governess, named Mrs. Berkley, announced her invention of the Berkley Horse, what the French press at the time christened the "chevalet." She had a reputation for superb furze brushes, holly-brushes, butcher brushes, battle doors (heavy wooden "spoons" used in old-time washing), and cane silvesters (very thin twangy cane), mostly made to commission in small craftsman factories around London, and an equal one for wielding them to draw blood and screams from her patrons. But despite this background, few can have predicted Mrs. Berkley's ingenuity in engineering this super sadistic device.

For the recipient of punishment there was a ladder adjusted in length and for height from the floor by the operation of four pulleys, drawn by an assistant. The victim was strapped and belted, hanging, on the ladder, his head and genitals protruding through specially measured spaces. Clamps fitted with coach-traces at various points on the ladder could be manually worked to press in on the victim by the pulley drawing assistant. Next to the ladder, and also drawn by pulley hoists, was the governess' chair to be moved up and down in accord with the height of the ladder. Armed with brushes, sticks, and canes, the governess increased the delights of the victim client, while orgasmic pains resulted from the dizzying ascents and descents of the victim's ladder itself. As Venus School Mistress said of the machine: "A climax of bleeding, screaming, and sympathetic ejaculating is to be hoped for."

On Mrs. Berkley's death, the Horse was exhibited to an astonished world in the Royal Society of Arts building in The Adelphi. What happened subsequently to the Berkley Horse isn't clear, though certainly the Victorians invented variants on the main design. But this was surely the highpoint of erotic inventiveness, even though it must be conceded to have had a minority appeal.

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About the Creator

Filthy Staff

A group of inappropriate, unconventional & disruptive professionals. Some are women, some are men, some are straight, some are gay. All are Filthy.

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