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"Harris, Susan Kumin" <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 25 May 2010 18:24:01 -0500
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Thanks Bob and Ben!  You've made my day!   --susan harris
Susan K. Harris
Hall Professor of American Literature & Culture
Department of English
University of Kansas
Lawrence, KS 66042


From: Mark Twain Forum on behalf of Robert Hirst
Sent: Tue 5/25/2010 16:42
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Mark Twain and sex toys

Members of the Forum,
Ever since the London _Independent_ published an article about the
forthcoming Autobiography earlier this week, I've been asked by various
news media and individuals some 476 times what I could tell them about
Mark Twain's use of sex toys as documented in said Autobiography. I
didn't hae an answer for that question, so I commissioned one of the
Mark Twain Project editors, Ben Griffin, to fill me in. I thought the
Forum might profit from what he had to say, which follows:
*[To the Person Vibrating in Darkness]*
by Benjamin Griffin, Mark Twain Project, 25 May 2010

The /Autobiography of Mark Twain/ does not contain any references to sex
toys or vibrators of any kind.

When the Mark Twain Project comes to publish volume 3, we do expect to
append the "Ashcroft-Lyon MS.," which does contain a leaf (debatably
part of the MS.) which refers to a pair of vibrating machines. It's
relevant, however, to know a little about the history of these

Vibrating machines were marketed extensively in the first years of the
20th century. They were sold as remedies for rheumatism, headaches,
neuralgia and many other ailments. No naughty connotations attached to
their public mention: they were advertised in newspapers and sold in
high-profile stores.

Clemens was an owner and user of the "Arnold Vibrator" and so was his
secretary Isabel V. Lyon. She found that it "stops headaches"; Clemens
himself wrote that it

cures and limbers lame and stiff backs ... it stirs up the circulation
quite competently and tones up the nerves-and that is really /the/
essential function of osteopathy and kindred treatments.

He recommended it to his friends, the Rogerses, in the 1908 letter
quoted here, which the Mark Twain Papers published in 1969.

That Isabel Lyon bought a vibrator for Mark Twain is certain. Laura
Skandera-Trombley's assertion that it was a "present," or even that it
was Lyon's idea to purchase the item, is undocumented. The relevant
passage from Lyon's 1908 Date Book (in the Mark Twain Papers) reads:

We got an electrical vibrating machine for the King [/i.e. Clemens/], in
N.Y., and tested it on me and on him [/i.e. Ralph Ashcroft/].

"[F]or the King" doesn't necessarily imply a gift; it may equally well
imply a commission by Clemens, to be carried out since Lyon was going to
New York anyway.

That Clemens would have recognized the vibrator as a potential sex toy
is entirely Laura Skandera-Trombley's idea; and since Skandera-Trombley
specifies that it was a sex toy "for women," its meaning as a putative
present /to Clemens/ would be deeply puzzling.

In sum,

(1) the /Autobiography/, contrary to reports, contains no references to
vibrators either in a sexual or asexual capacity;

(2) Clemens both used and recommended the then-popular health aide the
Arnold Vibrating Machine, a very above-board medical appliance which
Clemens recommended to friends, but this is not news.

(3) That Lyon made a "present" of the machine to Clemens, or recommended
it to him, has not been documented.

Reproduced below is a characteristic ad, from a 1913 issue of /Popular
Mechanics/, which may help to put the appliance back into its
contemporary context.

[I have omitted the illustration in order to transmit this message to
the Forum.]