Sex Toys R Us: A Short, Crazy History of Pleasurable Playthings

Very few things our ancestors did in their day are considered news today. But there are the rare, raunchy exceptions.

The international press was tickled pink after archaeologists unearthed a stone relic in the Swabian Jura mountain range, in southwestern Germany, in 2005.

Fashioned by some nameless craftsman some 28,000 years ago, the silt-stone artifact was a smooth, eight-inch long likeness of a penis.

The find was an instant media sensation. In fact, ten years later, reporters were still making innuendos, noting the dildo’s “surprisingly long” history, or observing how the “German sausage” was “rock hard.”

To be clear, lead archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen says the object’s likely purpose may not have been as sexy as reporters supposed.  

“Female representations with highly accentuated sexual attributes are very well documented at many sites, but male representations are very, very rare,” Conard told the BBC. “In addition to being a symbolic representation of male genitalia, it was also at times used for knapping flints. “

Knapping flints??? Ouch!

Be that as it may, even Conard could not discount the possibility that the relic could’ve been used for more orgasmic purposes. “It’s very polished,” he conceded.   

Archaeologists unearthed a 28,000-year-old life-sized stone phallus in the Swabian Jura mountain range, in southwestern Germany, in 2005.
Archaeologists unearthed a 28,000-year-old life-sized stone phallus in the Swabian Jura mountain range, in southwestern Germany, in 2005.

Horsehair, Metal Balls, and Bread

Speculation over the sex habits of our ancestors notwithstanding, there is no equivocating the purpose of other – decidedly titillating – archeological finds.

The Araucanian people in South America tied bundles of horsehair together to stimulate the clitoris during sex.

The Dayak men of Borneo pierced themselves with bamboo and ivory to increase the pleasure of their partners. Ouch again!

In Ancient Greece, people used dildos shaped from bread as sexual aids, says writer Vicki Leon. Of course, the unique baked treats were edible. But then if you weren’t particularly hungry afterward, you could simply throw them away. The bread dildos were biodegradable, which made the Greeks a forward-looking, responsible sexy people.

Thousands of years later, the ever-innovative Chinese invented Ben Wa balls. Men inserted these tiny metal balls into their genitalia to increase the pleasure of sexual contact.

Not to be outdone, Chinese women later created balls larger than those of their men for their own pleasure. When inserted into the vagina, these balls would move and click pleasantly together, releasing waves of satisfaction.

In Ancient Greece, people used dildos shaped from bread as sexual aids.
In Ancient Greece, people used dildos shaped from bread as sexual aids.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

17th Century Sailors Blow Off Steam

To the west and not long after, in the 17th century, seamen began experimenting with sex dolls.

Called dames de voyage, lonely sailors fashioned the dolls to simulate female companionship during long voyages. When they weren’t swabbing the deck, they were lovingly sewing together bundles of hay and cloth to approximate the human form. The lonely mariners then dressed these dolls in women’s clothing.

Many a sailor took a roll in the hay with these hay dolls below decks when the loneliness of extended voyages became too much to endure.

Jumping ahead a few hundred years and we land in the Industrial Revolution, which gave us the steam engine, the first internal combustion engine, and dynamite. This raucous era of technological advance also gave us explosions of another sort: the first-ever mechanical vibrator.

Created by the American physician George Taylor, the utterly terrifying, steam-powered Manipulator was meant to cure the myth of “hysteria” among women with medical masturbation.

In the 17th century,  sailors fashioned sex dolls from hay and cloth to simulate female companionship during long voyages.
In the 17th century, sailors fashioned sex dolls from hay and cloth to simulate female companionship during long voyages.
(Photo Source: British Library/Wikimedia Commons)

The device had a clunky and sizable engine, which operators concealed in another room lest they frightened “patients.” The machine’s phallic apparatus stuck out through a wall in the next room, where “afflicted” female patients received treatment.

Other inventors followed suit with an array of devices for similar treatments. One such machine was called the Chattanooga, which manufacturers sold to doctors for $200 – the price of a small house at the time.

Smaller devices began emerging well into the 20th century. Each one was invariably advertised as a cure for female hysteria, sore necks, back pains, or weight gain.

“While we can’t be sure if the creators of these devices knew what their target audience was actually using them for, there’s no doubt that they quickly became the latest and greatest sex toy,” says the writer, Hannah McKennet.

The "Sanofix" electric hand vibrator came with four different attachments for massaging the forehead, face, neck and chest and could be used without tiring the hand.
The “Sanofix” electric hand vibrator came with four different attachments for massaging the forehead, face, neck and chest and could be used without tiring the hand. (Photo: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons)

Borghild, the Nazi Sex Doll?

Perhaps one of the most fascinating – and madcap – rumors behind the evolution of sex toys involves Nazi commanders and scientists.

The story goes that Nazi engineers created the first modern sex doll at the request of Hitler through his devoted henchman, Heinrich Himmler.

Author Graeme Donald began hearing about the alleged top-secret sex toy operation while researching his book Mussolini’s Barber. The book is a compilation of the most bizarre stories in military history.

“While I was researching this, I came across references to Nazi sex dolls and found out that Hitler had ordered them to be made,” Donald says.

The Fuhrer reportedly ordered the creation of the doll as a means to stop German soldiers from visiting the brothels of occupied France.

The Germans were losing entire platoons to STDs after taking France. So much so that Himmler wrote in an extant memo to Hitler: “The greatest danger in Paris is the widespread and uncontrolled presence of whores.”

"The greatest danger in Paris is the widespread and uncontrolled presence of whores,” Heinrich Himmler (center) wrote in an extant memo to Hitler.
“The greatest danger in Paris is the widespread and uncontrolled presence of whores,” Heinrich Himmler (center) wrote in an extant memo to Hitler. (Photo: Museum SS-Truppenübungsplatz Heidelager/Wikimedia Commons)

The plastic prototype dolls were called “Borghilds.” The supposed sculptor of the top-secret project, Arthur Rink, is said to have created three models. Type A had a 168-centimeter bust while Types B and C were both more abundantly endowed with 182-centimeter busts.

The SS had requested that the dolls should have full, rounded breasts. The SS doctor Olen Hannussen insisted on a “rose hip form, that would grip well,” according to Donald.

There seems to have been much discussion as to an appropriate face for the doll. Donald says all were in agreement that Borghild should have a cheeky, naughty look.

After some back and forth involving the Nazi brass, the Third Reich predictably settled for the Nazi vision of beauty: a tall, leggy blonde but with “an artificial face of lust” resembling that of “a common wanton.”

The creators reportedly completed the first Borghild Type B in September 1941 and presented it to Himmler in Berlin. After personally “examining” the doll’s various orifices, Himmler is said to have given the doll his overwhelming approval, ordering fifty more on the spot. 

There are conflicting accounts as to whether any Borghilds actually made it to the front lines to fulfill their patriotic duties. Many claim the entire story is a hoax. If so, then it should suffice as proof that no tale is too wild, too raunchy, or too absurd for the storied evolution of sex toys.

The Fuhrer reportedly ordered the creation of sex dolls as a means to stop German soldiers from visiting the brothels of occupied France.
The Fuhrer reportedly ordered the creation of sex dolls as a means to stop German soldiers from visiting the brothels of occupied France. (Photo: culturacolectiva.com)

Toys, Lawsuits, and Trains

The furtive, “top-secret” attitude toward sex toys held until the sexual revolution exploded onto the scene in the 60s and 70s.  Since then, sex-positive experts and enthusiasts have been selling sex toys for what they are. That is, not as a means to stop disease or ease body aches and hysteria, but as implements of sexual pleasure.

Today, in the third decade of the 21st century, the global sex toy market is worth a whopping $31 billion. We are beginning to see sex toys advertised and discussed with increasing openness. This is perhaps thanks in part to the internet, social media, and a more candid attitude about sex in general, says McKennet.

Still, confounding limitations remain. For instance, Dame Products is currently suing New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) for rejecting its ad campaign. The ads submitted by the women’s sexual-health startup to run in New York’s transit system show female-focused sex toys.

The ads themselves don’t depict anything specific – just smooth, if odd, shapes in shades of green, blue, maroon, and light pink. One ad included the words, “Toys, for sex.”

The MTA’s brass has held its ground despite the lawsuit, claiming the agency rejected the ads because they promoted “a sexually oriented business.”

“The MTA’s Victorian view of female sexuality and the First Amendment cannot stand. … All New Yorkers – and all women – deserve better,” Dame’s complaint reads. “It reveals the MTA’s sexism, its decision to privilege male interests in its advertising choices, and its fundamental misunderstanding of Dame’s products.”

Today, we are beginning to see sex toys advertised and discussed with unprecedented openness.
Today, we are beginning to see sex toys advertised and discussed with increasing openness.

But none of this changes the fact that our fingers are now within reach of improved, highly-advanced products born of an ancient preoccupation.

Sex toys are a primal component of human history and culture. They have been around for a long, long time and there are no indications that we’ll be letting go of them anytime soon.

We’ve come a long way from the stone phallus, hay dolls, and bread. Who knows what crazy, sophisticated toys we’ll meet in the future?   


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