Skip to main content
A photograph of an ancient sex toy

The surprising ancient history of sex toys

Image Credit: | Above: A photograph of an ancient sex toy

SEX: A Bonkers History explores how sexual behaviour through the ages has shaped civilisation in ways we are only now beginning to discover. Host Amanda Holden shines a light on history's most unknown and risqué sex stories. The show premieres on Sky HISTORY on Monday, 18 September at 9pm.

From the pagan civilisations who hailed female orgasms as ritual sacrifices, to the double-ended device for two female lovers found in the ruins of Pompeii, sexual aids have been used throughout history. Let’s take a look at where some of our modern under-the-bed shoe box classics originated.

In the beginning

In 1992, a 2000-year-old wooden ‘object’ was unearthed in the Roman Fort of Vindolanda, Northumberland and categorised as a darning tool. In what was most assuredly a clear cry for more women in archaeology, one of the team stated that they ‘had to cast our nets wide in thinking. What would a 6.5-inch carving of a phallus be used for?’ Eventually, its size, shape and other intricate details led to its recent reclassification as a sexual aid by someone a little less prudish.

But this is nowhere near the earliest recorded discovery. Toys found from around 500 BC were typically carved from stone and leather as well as wood, with some even made from camel dung and resin. A chalk phallus discovered at the aptly named Membury Rings Neolithic site in Dorset is believed to be a sexual aid, but it’s still not the oldest.

That title goes to a 7.8-inch phallus made from siltstone found in the German Hohle Fels cave in 2005. At approximately 28,000 years old, it predates agriculture by around 13,000 years.

A rose by any other name

With rubber dildoes appearing on the market in 1850, it’s a term most adults are familiar with. Contrary to being a modern slang term, the word ‘dildo’ was originally used around 1400 AD and derived from the Latin ‘dilatre’ meaning ‘open wide’, and the Italian ‘diletto’ or 'delight'.

In Ancient Greece however, they were sold as ‘olisbos’, an aid for women while their husbands were away, while an ‘olisbokollix’, made from bread, was suggested jokingly as a softer alternative.

It’s medicinal

While the Greeks joked about bread dildoes, the Babylonians were never ones to shy away from a challenge. Long before American Pie debuted making apple pie the gentleman’s choice, warm bread would be expertly applied to men suffering from an external urethral obstruction to clear the blockage by inducing ejaculation.

In the United States, Frank E. Young’s 1892 cure for piles proved popular for 40 years, until the 1938 Federal Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics Act put a stop to sales of the 4.5-inch 'Rectal Dilator' for false advertising.

In Victorian London, women suffering from anything from insomnia to abdominal heaviness could be diagnosed with ‘female hysteria’. Hysteria was originally the Greek word for uterus leading doctors to deduce that ‘pelvic massage’ was the best cure. The idea of female arousal was proscribed in Victorian England and so the condition was classed as non-sexual. This meant these pelvic massages led to a perfectly respectable hysterical paroxysm instead of any of those filthy orgasms.

Good vibrations

By the mid-19th century, around 75% of women in Victorian London had, in many cases repeatedly, been treated for hysteria. Doctors of the time complained that it was tedious, tiring, and time-consuming. Fortunately, medical science had already set about finding a way to relieve them of this particular duty.

In 18th century France, the ‘Tremoussir’ was the first ever vibrator. It was a portable wind-up device but disappointingly underpowered, with a frustrating tendency to run out before finishing the job. By the 1860s, water-powered alternatives appeared that could be hooked up to a sink and bragged a mere four minutes to paroxysm.

In America, George Taylor’s steam-powered ‘Manipulator’ came along in 1869. But it was London’s own Dr Joseph Granville who created the first electromechanical vibrator in 1880, predating the first electric irons and vacuum cleaners by a decade.

By 1909, vibrators had a respectable market with ‘tried and tested’ articles regularly appearing in publications such as Good Housekeeping. As sex was only classified as penetration at that time, their use was still not considered sexual. Women proudly displayed their vibrators right up until the late 1920s, when their appearance in early porn films spoiled the ruse and they promptly disappeared from polite society.

Toys for boys

As the Babylonian bakers above suggest, it’s not just the ladies getting creative while flying solo. French sailors in the 17th century would often go to sea with their 'Dame de Voyage', a precursor to the vulcanised rubber inflatable girlfriends of 1904, which was made of rags. These were a far cry from the Parisian catalogues of 1908 offering ‘custom dolls resembling any actual person living or dead’.

The 3rd century saw the male nobility of China using rings made from the eyelids of goats complete with eyelashes to prolong their sexual encounters. It was also around this time that India’s Karma Sutra depicted the use of Apadravyas to increase a man’s prowess. They were fastened with a strap, on which an impressive extension of gold, ivory, or silver had been attached.