“It vibrates. But is it, y’know, a vibrator?”

I’d just been dumped by a guy when I first heard about the Bakken Museum’s vibrator collection. Minneapolis’s Bakken, for the record, bills itself as “The Museum of Electricity in Life,” and since my bulb had just gone out, I thought looking into the long history of self-satisfaction might be a pleasant diversion.

I learned that the museum (named for its founder, Earl Bakken, inventor of the pacemaker and founder of Medtronic) houses the world’s largest vibrator collection, including a number of turn-of-the-century gadgets, the genial digi-genital progenitors of our modern day devices. (Try saying that five times fast.)

Could it be true that this little museum on the banks of Lake Calhoun had such a collection on display? An electro-phallic chronology of female sexual independence? I naively pictured glass cases filled with oblong devices, beginning with old-timey cracked leather fixtures with odd metal knobs, and arriving in modernity with colorful plastic toys like “the Rabbit,” the trembling tool that made a recluse of Sex and the City’s Charlotte.

With a tight deadline and no research under my belt (Ba-da-bing! Thank you! I’ll be here all week!), I called the Bakken. “I’m, ah, I’m with… Is it true that you have the world’s largest vibrator—exhibit of vibrators?” I asked the switchboard operator, who sighed. “Because I checked the website and it doesn’t seem like you have them on display,” I added. Listed exhibits included The Mystery of Magnetism, Magnetism and the Human Body, Batteries, Eighteenth Century Electricity, and The Spark of Life. And while that last one seemed promising, and some of them were even billed as “hands-on” exhibits, none seemed to fit the bill. “Do you get that question a lot?” I asked.

“We do, in fact,” he said, and he patched me through to the museum’s Curator of Instruments, Dr. Ellen Kuhfeld, who confirmed a collection of vibrators—not on display, but in museum storage—and agreed to take me into the vault.

Kuhfeld, who has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, described her duties at the Bakken as “something between a warehouse job and a university position.” Guiding me through the two thousand objects in the collection, she pointed out early pacemakers and defibrillators, violet ray machines used to clear up skin conditions, and an electrocardiograph built in 1945. She showed me C. Walton Lillehei’s surgical headlamp and pointed to the box that holds a Jarvik-7 artificial heart.

You get the feeling that Kuhfeld, beleaguered by questions about the museum’s most private of collections, would rather talk about anything but, um, the business at hand. But finally we arrived at the vibrators, which are catalogued as “musculo-skeletal relaxation devices,” and Kuhfeld carefully pulled each one off the shelf. The oldest in the collection, a Weiss vibrator dating from between the 1880s and 1930s, looked like a tiny black-leather spy camera with a small spring-coiled arm on the top. It was designed, Kuhfeld told me, to treat deafness by delivering a pulse to the inner ear. A number of early-twentieth-century devices, among them the New Life Vibrator, looked like blow dryers and came with various rubber attachments. Kuhfeld explained that these were advertised as remedies for everything from back pain to wrinkles to weak bladders, curing through heat and vibration. Next she showed me an electric hairbrush. Not exactly what I was expecting.

“So, are any of these actually vibrators?” I asked.

“Well, they’re all classified as vibrators,” replied Kuhfeld, pulling another object off the shelf. “It depends on what you mean by ‘vibrators.’”

“I mean, what we think of today as vibrators,” I said.

Dr. Kuhfeld blinked back at me. She was giving nothing away.

“Devices for female sexual pleasuring,” I finally said.

At this point, Kuhfeld placed on the table an instrument made in Denmark in the early 1900s. It included three thin metal shafts, whose uses were unfathomable.

“Well, this isn’t something I’d want near my pleasure,” Dr. Kuhfeld said.

“So, you have nothing like what we think of as a vibrator?” I asked Dr. Kuhfeld on our way out of the crypt. Kuhfeld didn’t exactly answer my question. Instead she stopped and gestured to a kerosene lamp from Russia that doubled as a thermoelectric generator. “For the outback. The places where electricity hadn’t yet arrived.”

The truth according to historian and author Rachel Maines is that though these tools were advertised as chiropractic devices, their salubrious effects were overshadowed by their more ecstatic applications. In her book The Technology of Orgasm, Maines, who spent time researching at the Bakken Library, traces their origins back to the Victorian medical treatment of “hysteria,” a condition thought to be caused by a woman’s failure to come to orgasm. Victorian doctors treated the “disease” by massaging their patients’ genitals, and turned to the electrical gizmos to make their jobs a little easier. According to Maines, as electricity became available across the country, these vibrators saw new domestic uses, though ads for them only hinted at anything beyond simple chiropractic relief.

While the more kinky history of some of its vibrating devices isn’t something the Bakken seems eager to trumpet, it’s not exactly the titillating display that urban myth has made it out to be. Visitors to the Bakken who want to shiver and thrill are advised to sit in on the Frankenstein show. Or spin the magnetic love puppies, whose noses quiver when they meet.—Shannon Olson