It must have seemed like black magic when humans first harnessed the power of electricity. How else could you explain the ability to illuminate the night without flame or fire?
In this superhuman triumph over Mother Nature, in the late 19th century, a cultural obsession was made. And because electricity was the future, anything electric became the ultimate symbol of modernity. That included an array of electric wearables that were sold as cure-alls for any number of ailments.
The electric belt was popular—but so were rings, corsets, hairbrushes, towels, garters, toothbrushes, and other inventions. A single device would often promise to soothe or eliminate a wide variety of afflictions: bronchitis, shortness of breath, liver complaints, rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica, gout, kidney complaints, paralysis, indigestion, constipation, asthma, weakness, “female complaints,” hysteria, general and local debility, functional disorders, bad circulation, writer’s cramp, palpitations, and so on.
Devices were marketed slightly differently for men and women, however. For men, electric wearables were often promoted as being able to enhance sexual performance, whereas “electrical corsets were available for women, less to augment their sexuality than to control it,” wrote Carolyn Marvin in her book, When Old Technologies Were New. One inventor described electric corsets thusly: “If one of these articles is pressed by a lover’s arm it at once emits a shriek like the whistle of a railway engine.”