In 1977, Joani Blank opened a small sex shop called Good Vibrations in San Francisco’s Mission District. The store allowed customers to purchase sex toys in a friendly, shame-free environment—which was far from common practice at the time—and plenty of early visitors presumed that vibrators in general were an equally fresh idea.

“Sort of the tech outgrowth of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution, right?” Carol Queen, curator of the Antique Vibrator Museum, tells Mental Floss. The specific products were surely higher-tech than some older devices, but it seemed important for customers to realize that there had actually been older devices. So Blank brought in about eight antique vibrators she had collected over the years, laid them out on a shelf, and affixed the display with a sign reading “Antique Vibrator Museum.”

“She wanted those shoppers, whether they were frisky or frightened, to know that these items had a history and a backstory that by then was about a century old (and if you include hand-crank and clockwork devices, much longer than that),” Queen explains. “That little shelf was intended to be not just informative, but consciousness-raising, as we said back in those days.”

An all-purpose vibrator from the 1920s.Antique Vibrator Museum

As Good Vibrations expanded to other cities, so too did its customer base, and patrons started donating old-fashioned vibrators unearthed at estate sales and flea markets. Soon, every shop had its own mini satellite museum. In 2012, management decided to consolidate the whole cache into a single room attached to Good Vibrations’s Polk Street location in San Francisco. “We'd been using the room as an art gallery and workshop space, but we realized the collection, shown together, was more than the sum of its parts,” Queen explains.

By that point, Queen had been working for Good Vibrations for more than two decades, and she’d been serving as the official staff sexologist since getting her Ph.D. in human sexuality in 1998. During those years, she also became something of an expert on the company’s collection of antique vibrators, so becoming the actual curator of the Polk Street museum happened organically. In addition to selecting which vibrators to showcase, Queen took care of all the academic details—including a timeline tracking the use and evolution of vibrators through history, descriptions of the vibrators, and more—while her colleague Sharon Lee designed the space.

A late 19th-century advertisement for a purportedly disease-curing massage machine.Antique Vibrator Museum

For years, the Antique Vibrator Museum has been educating visitors about just how far these seemingly straightforward adult toys have come in the last 150 years. In the beginning, physicians developed vibrating devices and touted them as sort of medical cure-alls; people used them to massage their faces, necks, stomachs, or whatever else was ailing them. Electric products became all the rage at the dawn of the 20th century, and vibrators soon joined the ranks of sewing machines, tea kettles, and other popular devices that women filled their homes with.

The museum has a number of these early examples in its collection—like the Detwiller, a 1906 invention that uses compressed air or gas to vibrate. “To put it mildly, compressed air for a home vibrator did not catch on, and I'm pretty sure it didn't last in the professional vibrator world either,” Queen says. “I saw it online and snapped it right up!”

The Detwiller.Antique Vibrator Museum

It was only a matter of time before people started using vibrators for sexual stimulation, but society wasn’t really ready to openly admit it until around the 1970s. In the years leading up to that, vibrators were mostly marketed to women as beauty appliances that would help keep them shapely and youthful. It’s probably safe to assume that some housewives used theirs more for orgasms than wrinkle prevention.

But other people just built their own machines. Take, for example, the Hippie Home-Made, an inspired invention cobbled together “from scraps at a hippie commune,” including a handle stripped from an old saucepan. “It came in the mail one day with a letter explaining its provenance, and that the guys in the commune had made it for the pleasure of their 'old ladies,'" Queen says. 

The Hippie Home-Made, a feat of engineering.Antique Vibrator Museum

The Antique Vibrator Museum itself is a testament and a tribute to that innovative spirit—the same spirit that spurred on the sexual revolution and led Blank and her contemporaries to work to destigmatize vibrators in the first place. And, of course, it’s always entertaining to marvel at what doctors considered medically sound during the Victorian era.

The museum is currently closed for renovations, but staff members are hoping to reopen it early this month. Since the exact date is still up in the air—and COVID-19 safety protocols may affect capacity—prospective guests should call the museum at (415) 345-0400 to plan their visit or visit their website here.