Herstory In Our Pants: The 1950s-Era Handy Hannah Vitalator

Welcome to Herstory In Our Pants, a brand-new irregular lesbian and queer sex history feature in which we talk about what went on in our pants and in our hearts in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

To start things off, one reviewer put history literally into her pants with a review of the Handy Hannah Vitalator, a “scalp massager” from the 1950s.

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+ Material: industrial-grade metal, in baby blue
+ Size: 4.5″ high by 6″ long
+ Weight: 2.4 lbs
+ Price: $22 on Etsy, prices will vary

The number one difference between the Handy Hannah Vitalator and contemporary sex toys is that the Vitalator isn’t technically a sex toy.

The Vitalator is similar to other barber vibrators, such as the Gilbert no. 8 (1933) and the Oster Stim-U-Lax (1940s). All feature a heavy motorized body with hand straps on the bottom, and were originally intended for scalp massages. In Passion and Power, sex educator Betty Dodson credits barber vibrators with her sexual awakening, so clearly not everyone was using them from the eyebrows up.

At 2.4 pounds, it’s a lot heavier than most contemporary sex toys — the Hitachi Magic Wand, for instance, weighs about 1.4 pounds and is significantly bigger, while the We Vibe weighs eight ounces. It’s also made of a cold, unfriendly metal, and has ventilation at both ends. (I can only assume the musty smell that goes along with more than about a minute of use is due to the age of my model.)

The Handy Hannah sits on the back of your hand and stays on via six springy metal straps. I found that my hand became red and chapped-looking with only a few minutes of use, and can’t imagine how uncomfortable I would feel after longer periods of use (or, say, while wearing the Vitalator to give head massages). Luckily, it’s powerful enough that longer periods aren’t necessary, even for the orgasmically challenged.

Still, it wasn’t as thuddy as I expected given the weight involved. Though not as high-pitched a buzz as a bullet or similar small vibrator, it didn’t have the heavier, thuddy-ier vibrations of the higher settings on something like the Form 6, which was disappointing, especially since the noise level was comparable to an office industrial fan on medium.handy-hanah-vitalator-vintage-vibrator-massager-1

The general awkwardness of the straps, cord and weight mean you can basically only use the Vitalator sitting or lying down on your back. It looks like it’d be fun to straddle, but possibly only on a carpeted floor — it was off-puttingly loud on hardwood and sunk too far into the mattress to allow for ventilation in bed. The metal shell didn’t actually get too hot with use, but I wouldn’t want to risk setting the bed on fire in a non-metaphorical way. I also think it’d be challenging at best to use with a partner, except in an exhibitionist situation — you can’t move your wrist or fingers too much because the toy covers too much of them, and getting in there for simultaneous oral sex is out of the question.

Hygiene and safety were also a concern. Though originally I planned to disinfect and then slap a glove over the entire thing, it turned out to be too big. Instead, I used it through a thin pair of pants. I would have loved to try some self-penetration with vibrating fingers, but 50 years of dust was too distracting.

Though I found the Vitalator less powerful than a good number of modern vibrators, particularly those that plug in, its weight gives it a power that lighter vibrators lack. Using it left no question in my mind that anyone who accidentally on purpose let it fall into their lap after an evening of personal scalp massage would be able to think of a few alternative uses.

I will probably never masturbate with this toy again unless a future activity partner has a voyeuristic retro fetish. (In which case I will blow her mind with what is probably the most hipster vibrator ever.) It was heavy, noisy, smelled industrial and was just awkward to use compared to the rest of my toy box. However, it would also be wrong to rate the Handy Hannah Vitalator according to modern standards. If it had been the first vibrator I’d ever used, it would have been pretty good. If it had been the first vibrator I’d ever seen, as it and similar items were for their audiences, it would have been revolutionary.handy-hanah-vitalator-vintage-vibrator-massager-4

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Carolyn is the NSFW Editor for Autostraddle.com. She is also a freelance copy editor and writer, and her work has appeared in Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, the Billfold, and other places. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 284 articles for us.

27 Comments

  1. Thumb up 14

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    I keep looking at this trying to figure out how exactly it works, even for scalp massages. I mean, wouldn’t longish hair– even hair not that long– get caught in the springs? It also looks like it’s supposed to be a sander, which is also pretty odd.

    (giggling at “tiny turbine engine” in post above mine. vroom vroom, believe you can fly, blue vibrate-y thing. beliiiieeeve)

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    “I will probably never masturbate with this toy again unless a future activity partner has a voyeuristic retro fetish. (In which case I will blow her mind with what is probably the most hipster vibrator ever.)”

    i learned something about myself today

  3. Thumb up 1

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    It’s a bizarre head massager and those metal straps look so uncomfortable. Like a commentator above I would be really scared to get to close to it in case it caught fire or something. Perhaps the bad smell was just the motor burning dust off and it wouldn’t be so bad next time?

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    Agreeing with the above commenters – you are very brave. I can’t even imagine putting it near any part of my body!

    Also I like that this was judged based on how it would have compared to other vibrators at that time, not modern ones.

  5. Thumb up 7

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    Growing up, my mom had her own hair salon. When she first opened, she bought out this older lady of all her furniture, dryers, etc. this was in that bundle! I remember those springy straps. I remember being a little kid and playing with it. She did tell me it was a scalp massager, and I had completely forgotten about it until now. And now that I have read this, I realize that I would often see it on the bottom shelf of her nightstand. Go Mom, haha!

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