Gemma Eglinton, Learning Coordinator at the London Museum of Water & Steam, on a turn of the century water-powered vibro-massage machine
It’s called an Aqua Vibro Massager and It looks like a kind of metal microphone with a black Bakelite handle, which dates it to after 1907 but we think it is pre-First World War.
Attached to it is a hose and it has a water motor inside it – like a turbine. The water would keep it cool whereas electricity would make it hot, plus water wasn’t metred in the same way as it is today, so it was cheaper and more desirable to use lots of water rather than electricity.
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You would put the Aqua Vibro Massager on to the tap in your kitchen or bathroom, and as far as we know, it would vibrate, although we haven’t seen it work and I’d like to see what the movement is to be honest.
It has “Aqua Vibro Massager” engraved on it with a provisional patent number, but no brand, which is frustrating. But there are adverts from the 1910s showing a woman who has got one very similar to ours, and she’s using it on her face. The advertisement says it’s really good for wrinkles and for invigorating the skin, and then there’s another one of a man using it after having a shave – for similar reasons.
However, there is a lot of debate about what these kinds of things were actually invented for and whether doctors would use them for their patients, particularly women, as a treatment for what was then termed ‘female hysteria’.
There are academic theses about this, and there is some evidence that doctors did use them. Some even go so far as to say that doctors liked them because it stopped them from, “having tired hands”!
Others say the Edwardians and Victorians were more liberated than we think and that we shouldn’t assume that everything was a secret sex toy. They were however advertised as being for home use, but of course we don’t know what people actually did at home.
When you Google it there are other, similar looking gadgets that don’t look remotely like something you would want to take to the bedroom and then others that look very suggestive as though that was exactly what they were intended for.
There were lots of electric ones on the market from the 1880s onwards, which were advertised quite widely as something people could use for massaging away aches and pains, or for headaches, or for your skin. But then there’s often a vague phrase in the advertising like, “It will reinvigorate you” or “it will leave you feeling very relaxed”.
So it’s an unusual object to find on the wall of a steam museum, but our walls are actually home to a whole host of beautiful and intriguing things.
We have a beautifully painted porcelain Delftware style toilet bowl that has people asking each other, “Is that really a toilet?!” There’s also a wall of beautiful washing machines, part of a kitchen sink, various gauges and two bicycles – one of them a bone shaker – that were used by workers at pumping stations because water wasn’t 24 hours a day; they would go and open the valves, using special keys.
We also have the world’s largest collection of Cornish cycle engines, and what we believe to be the world’s biggest stationary beam engine, which is the 100 inch engine.
Originally the museum was about these pumping engines and steam engines whose purpose was to provide and clean the water, which kept Londoners quite literally alive. But over the years the museum has grown its remit and we now have a huge range of ephemera – anything connected to water – including the Aqua Vibro Massager.
Gemma Eglinton was speaking to Richard Moss
London Museum of Water and Steam
London, Greater London
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