There is an antiques place, a great big barn outside Dundee in the Perthshire village of Abernyte. It’s set in verdant, hilly countryside, one hill rolling into the next like waves - a good analogy for this story. I can and have spent hours there, as it’s full of antique stalls containing the odd, beautiful and ancient of every description. I have a centuries old Chinese mirror from there, polished metal with a water scene in relief on the other side. I like to imagine who might have used it, what their life was like, what their thoughts, dreams and fears were. I will never know but of one purchase, the story has reached out to me from the past.
One day browsing the treasure trove, I wandered into the household and farming ‘shop.’ This isn’t normally of great interest but I was humouring my beloved. In the corner on a table was an intriguing thing, a shiny device I had never seen before. It was approximately one foot long, with a wooden handle and some sort of motor encased within a heavy metal compartment. Protruding from the back was a crank. At the bottom of this device there was a circular Bakelite pad, with a gap and then an outer ring of the same. When you turned the handle the inner disc would move up and down, and depending on how quickly you turned, could go quite fast. It had a hole in the center of the disc where it appeared something else could be fitted. The noise it made was akin to a very loud hand drill or ratchet. On the front of the motor housing, etched into the casing, it said, “Dr. Macaura’s Blood Circulator, Patent number 13932. I was undeterred by my husband’s, “what do you want to buy that for?” I thought it would be a fascinating, mysterious ornament to have sitting on the coffee table, and it was. I never failed to bring out my little machine, adults puzzled over it and children delighted in trying it against their legs, arms, or on the heads of unfortunate sisters.
It would have been beautiful had I remained in ignorance, trotting it out at dinner parties to the wonder and amusement of my guests. A year later, it occurred to me to look up the patent number of my table ornament. I was more than surprised to discover so much information about the Blood Circulator, originally known as the “Pulsacon.” It was invented in the 1880’s and produced until the 1920’s by the British Appliances Manufacturing Company of Leeds, England. Apparently, cranking the handle could produce two thousand vibrations per minute. One example can be found in the London Science Museum with the operational instructions, “It is secured with one hand and the vibrating plate placed over the desired body part. Turning the handle produces a surprisingly intense vibration over the affected area.” In the 58 page booklet that came with it, titled, “Death is Stagnation – Life is Vibration,” Joseph Gerald Macaura claimed that it could cure pain, deafness, anaemia, heart disease, cramp, polio and ‘women’s problems.’
As I said, I like to imagine the people that went before me, what these things have meant to them, the context of their lives. For the woman who possessed this ‘blood circulator’ and I do think it was a woman, she lived in much more constrained times. The assumptions of her time included the belief that women were prone to hysteria, causing untold problems in the home and for Victorian men in particular. A common diagnosis was ‘womb disease,’ the symptoms of which were, headaches, irritability, fear of impending insanity and hysteria.
I can’t help but smile at these well intentioned, naïve Victorians, as naïve say, as someone buying a ‘vibrational device’ as a coffee table ornament. Some other Victorian assumptions were that women did not experience ‘copulatory urges,’ or the physical release that came from these encounters and that real coitus only occurred with penetration to physical release. Climax was seen as a sign of good health but not of fornication. Thus, doctors surmised that womb disease and female hysteria were caused by failure to achieve climax.
By the first century AD, massage of the pudenda had become standard treatment for this common but chronic complaint. For the next two centuries doctors experimented with all manner of things to ‘shake things loose,’ from vibrating chairs to high powered water douches.’ No matter the device, the goal was the same – to induce ‘hysterical paroxysm.’ This was an improvement for the women, for $2 and some time in the doctor’s office, they experienced temporary relief. The problem was, it was only very temporary and there were a lot of women. Dedicated physicians complained of sore hands despite the enormous financial benefits to providing this treatment. One doctor said it was harder than it looked, likening it to trying to rub your head and pat your stomach simultaneously.
People like “Dr.” Macaura saw a niche in the market and capitalised. By now some practitioners were feeling a little defensive trying to convey the seriousness of their work. To meet this demand, vibratory entrepreneurs produced new machines, professional looking and substantial. One was called the Chattanooga, which was mounted (by the doctor) like a Tommy gun on wheels, to be rolled alongside the patient. Another popular model was the Carpenter, which hung from the ceiling and looked like a mechanics impactor, or air gun as it’s sometimes called. Needless to say, a myriad of devices were made, all advertised in a manner to camouflage their intent. Then, sometime in the 1920’s they seem to have disappeared. One theory is that the devices began to show up in less salubrious films and their camouflage was gone.
I feel I must speak up for the previous owner of my Blood Circulator. I am sure there was relief to be had in owning this device but I am quite certain frustration did not disappear. The context of her life did not allow her a voice in the home (except in domestic matters), in her marriage or in society. She did not have freedom of choice, the vote and was viewed as irrational, weak and unreliable. Multiple paroxysms would not have increased her influence, nor diminished her most meaningful impotence.
What of our good doctor though? He was passionate on the subject of women’s health and surely for that he is to be admired. At one trade fair in Leeds, he concluded his talk on vibrational therapy with this, “It is the duty of those who took the Hippocratic oath to be fired by imagination and inquisitiveness, to…arrest decay and to amplify life. Who could find objection to such noble sentiments? The French apparently. On May 14, 1914, Gerald Macaura, an American of Irish descent, was arrested and ordered to pay a fine of $600 and sentenced to three years imprisonment. He was charged with fraud and crimes of ‘vibratory massage.’
The famous Pulsacon / Blood Circulator does not sit on my coffee table anymore; instead it now resides in a cabinet of antiquities in my bedroom. No longer a sitting room ornament but an interesting device with a colourful history and the object of one of my favourite stories.
(Additional information from “Worth Point,” the “Independent,” and Leicestershire County Council)
© S. Marian, June 5, 2012