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Hallie Lieberman
UW graduate student and teaching assistant Hallie Lieberman’s field of study is the history and marketing of adult toys.

This was one way an interview could begin.

“I brought one along,” Hallie Lieberman said Wednesday morning. “I won’t bring it out if it will make you uncomfortable.”

Lieberman, 30, a graduate student and teaching assistant at UW-Madison, was settling into a chair opposite me at Gallup Coffee on Monroe Street.

“I can handle it,” I said.

She placed an object on the table between us.

“It looks like a hair dryer,” I said.

Lieberman grinned. “Same battery.”

It wasn’t a hair dryer. It was a Hamilton Beach vibrator manufactured in Racine around 1912.

Lieberman is used to people occasionally feeling uneasy around her. “There is something about vibrators that makes people uncomfortable,” she said.

But Lieberman is highly serious about her academic work on the subject. Her ambition is no less than to write and publish the definitive history of adult toys and their marketing in the United States, with a focus on vibrators.

Lieberman is pursuing a doctorate in journalism and mass communication at UW-Madison and recently completed a paper titled “ ‘Send a Thrill of Energy and Vigor Rushing Through Your Veins’: The Secret History of the Vibrator in Racine, Wisconsin, 1904-1938.”

The title of the paper is taken from a 1913 Hamilton Beach magazine advertisement.

While the ad isn’t overtly sexual, it’s clear Hamilton Beach — one of six Racine-based manufacturers of vibrators at the time, according to Lieberman — was letting people know there were all kinds of uses for its product.

Lieberman is one of few academics to have pursued the topic. The trailblazer was Rachel Maines, whose 1999 book, “The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria,’ the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction,” was the basis for Sarah Ruhl’s recent play “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play),” which was nominated for a Tony Award and was a Pulitzer finalist as well. Maines once told a London newspaper that when she first published an article on the history of vibrators, she lost her teaching post at Clarkson University.

Lieberman’s hope is to advance beyond Maines’ scholarship. She said Maines pretty much ended her research after 1920 and also understated the role Racine and Wisconsin played in the early history of the vibrator.

Lieberman said Racine — once known as the small-engine capital of the world — “should have a national vibrator museum.”

Lieberman’s academic adviser at UW-Madison first counseled her away from the subject.

“Oh, don’t do that,” the adviser said.

“This is what I want to study,” Lieberman said.

“But you might not get a job.”

The adviser eventually came around, and Lieberman said that ever since, the campus community has been supportive, particularly those in women’s studies.

There does seem to be hypocrisy in the way men’s and women’s sexuality are treated in the public arena. For the past decade you could hardly turn on a television without seeing an ad about curing erectile dysfunction, but Lieberman said vibrators are just now getting any advertising on the airwaves — and then only if they’re not referred to as such.

“It’s a double standard hopefully I can chip away at,” she said.

Lieberman grew up in Florida and earned her undergraduate degree at the university in Gainesville. She earned a master’s in advertising at the University of Texas and worked at two schools in Colorado before coming to Madison in 2008.

She said her parents were at first “very disconcerted” about the focus of her academic career, but are now “totally supportive.”

Lieberman said her ultimate goal is to publish her book and then teach classes on the subject. She said she hasn’t settled on a title for the book but is considering “Batteries Not Included.”

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com.

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