Before sex toys were a click away on Amazon, they were a product that few took seriously. Once only the domain of porn purveyors, in the 1960s dildos were poor quality devices available only on the floors of sleazy XXX stores. But one man gazed at the floppy rubber phalluses and saw a business opportunity.
He realized that dildos were in need of a makeover: If they were made with high quality materials and manufactured on a large scale, they could be big business. The pioneer of such dildos was an unlikely sex-toy hero: ventriloquist Ted Marche.
Marche and his dummy Georgie were a hot ticket on the California ventriloquist circuit in the 1950s and early 1960s. Together, they stumped for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and entertained celebrities. Ventriloquism wasn’t a side job for Marche; it was how he made his living. Marche wasn’t his real last name, and still no one is quite sure what the original last name was. He appears to be a mystery even to some of his extended family, which is appropriate given his profession, which required him to disappear beneath other identities. One thing his son did reveal to me in an interview was that Marche was Jewish, which would explain the name change, a common tactic for performers.
Other things I found out: He was born on Oct. 25, 1923 in Brooklyn and completed two tours of service before he moved to Los Angeles to follow his passion of becoming a ventriloquist. He was one of the most skilled ventriloquists of the late 1950s and early 1960s, hobnobbing with celebrity A-listers and touring the country with the Hollywood Stars Baseball Team, whose members included Mickey Rooney. He entertained Dean Martin at the Friars Club and regaled Buddy Hackett at the Press Club. Famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell claimed that Marche was “the only ventriloquist I’ve ever seen—whose lips never move.” With his dummy, Georgie, a hairstylist named Francois, and a talking pig in tow, Marche performed across the country, bringing his act to grocery stores, trade shows, and even a store dedicated to selling Vibra Massage Chairs.
Marche was not just a professional performer: He was also an engineer. He would spend hours designing and building his dummies, creating molds and filling them with flesh-colored plastic. He was devoted. But by 1965, he was ready for a new profession. Marche wanted to solve a problem he and many men had.
That problem? Eyeglasses that would slide down the nose—a particularly annoying issue for a ventriloquist whose hands were otherwise occupied with his dummy. He came up with a hinge-strengthening device made of prongs and rubber bands.
That invention didn’t become a hit, but, later that year, he developed something that a lot more men, and women, wanted.
This product idea didn’t come from Marche himself but from one of his friends, a man named John Francis. Francis was in his late sixties and was obsessed with boats, although he had recently developed a new business on the side: making prosthetic penises. He wondered if Marche could help him.
This was 1965, pre-sexual revolution, when sex toys were considered obscene and therefore illegal unless they were used as medical devices to assist in penetration during heterosexual sex. In America in the 1960s, a person couldn’t legally send contraceptives or dildos through the mail, and only married women could legally purchase the new hormonal birth control nicknamed “The Pill,” which became available in the first year of the decade.
In 1965, Ralph Ginzburg was tried for obscenity for mailing his artsy erotic publication Eros through the mail. Sex had been slowly becoming a topic of open, public discussion in the late 1950s as US obscenity laws had begun to change. The 1957 Roth v. United States case saw the Supreme Court loosen the definition of obscenity for the first time in nearly a decade. Instead of judging a book or movie as obscene based on its dirtiest sex scenes, Roth decreed it would be judged as a whole. Only if an “average person, applying contemporary community standards” would think that “the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole applies to prurient interest” and was “utterly without redeeming social significance” would a piece of art be considered obscene. More sex-themed books and movies were legalized, but Roth wasn’t all good—the ruling also established that obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment.
Roth had loosened the obscenity laws, but the US Postal Inspection Service continued to arrest people for mailing obscene materials. In fact, arrests for mailed obscenity had more than doubled from the period between 1959 and 1963. By 1966, the Supreme Court convicted Ginzburg of “pandering” in Ginzburg v. United States. Ginzburg’s crime? Sending Eros from cities with sexual names such as Intercourse, Pennsylvania, which was considered obscene. “Pandering” became a new punishable offense for advertisers—and just like obscenity, pandering lacked a clear definition.
The sex-toy industry was a dicey one to be involved in. Most people, when asked if they could be of service for a dildo business, would have run the other way. But Marche was not most people. He was funny, and charming, and he loved helping people and making them happy. So he was receptive when he heard about Francis’s side business: making prosthetic penis attachments, or PPAs, which were sold as devices for impotent men to strap on during sex with their wives decades before Viagra. Marche agreed to assist Francis, who had been making his hollow, strap-on polyvinyl chloride dildos one at a time in the oven in his kitchen. It was a slow process—and an imprecise one. Marche thought he could help Francis speed up the process and make the dildos more uniform.
A family man, Marche decided to enlist his whole clan in his new dildo-manufacturing business. As his wife and teenage children ate dinner, Marche carved his first dildo out of balsawood. One of his children looked on with particular interest: his 15-year-old stepson, Marche’s wife’s son from her first marriage.
As a sex-toy business sprang up around a kitchen table in Los Angeles, the country was awash in political changes. President Kennedy had been assassinated two years earlier, in 1963. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, had escalated the war in Vietnam, and 100,000 soldiers were sent there in the summer of 1965. Meanwhile, the civil rights struggle on the homefront was coming to a head. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, barring discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or national origin.
Although Marche was no longer as active with the Democratic Party as he had been, making dildos in the 1960s was a decidedly political act. It was socially and politically dicey, and, depending on how you framed it, it was illegal. On top of the federal obscenity law, nearly every state had a different law regarding the products. Georgia, for example, prohibited devices “designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.”
Although the dildo business was political, it was also a skilled trade—and it was time-consuming. The first step was creating metal molds from the wooden dildos. Then Marche and his son would fill the molds with a plastic polymer and put them into a newly purchased convection oven, which perfectly tempered the dildos. The final step was placing the elastic straps on the dildos. Marche’s wife had experience riveting planes at Douglas Aircraft, which came in handy for her job of assembling the snaps for the strap-on component. Francis was pleased with the output, but Marche wasn’t satisfied with merely supplying Francis with toys. He wanted to start his own company.
Marche quickly realized that though he had the process down, he wasn’t as sure about style: what sizes and shapes he should make them in, what styles customers would want. So Marche told his son to go investigate. His son began to visit Los Angeles–area libraries and archives on a mission to track down all examples of sex toys throughout the centuries. He went day after day, finding examples of Japanese dildos from the 1800s, ancient Chinese sex toys, and more recent Russian ones. Based on this research, they came up with four different sizes: small, medium, large, and extra-large, ranging from five to nine inches long. They decided to create solid dildos in addition to the hollow strap-ons.
But there was one question they remained unsure about: What color would a 20th-century American woman want her husband’s dildo to be? It was a question that may never have been asked before. Or if it had, it had been answered by a man.
In America, at the time the Marches were making sex toys, dildos were hard to find. They were available only through mail order in catalogs targeted to men or in seedy XXX stores. These stores were on the outskirts of town, usually in fairly dangerous areas, as zoning laws relegated adult bookstores far away from schools, churches, or playgrounds. If a woman wanted to see a dildo before she bought it, she had to go to an adult bookstore, and the average woman just didn’t go in those kinds of stores.
Marche’s decision to aim his dildos at a female market was a bold move. Even more daring was convening a focus group of 25 women to ask them which colors they preferred. Marche passed around samples of colors, including what was then called “flesh-colored”—a light pink meant to mimic Caucasian skin color—and a version in bright red. He learned that they didn’t want the dildos to be too realistic in color, as that made them seem kind of creepy, steering dildos into the uncanny valley between the clearly artificial and the realistic replica. But they didn’t want them to be too vibrantly colored either.
A pearlescent orange won out. For the strap-on, they liked a color that was a little more realistic-looking. It was a shade of Caucasian skin color that was nearly identical to that of Georgie’s face, Marche’s dummy. The early dildo colors were designed after a ventriloquist’s doll. Marche even mixed the color himself.
Marche wasn’t just concerned about having the right color: He also wanted to make the best quality dildos on the market. For that, he had to have the best materials. He was using plastisol, a liquid form of polyvinyl chloride, for the dildos. It wouldn’t be considered top-of-the-line now, but it was the finest of its time, as it was nontoxic and medical grade. This too was a revolutionary approach. Most dildo companies weren’t concerned about quality. Since dildos were marginally legal, the number of companies producing them was small, and the people who entered the business were usually sketchy. Consumers bought what was available because they had no choice. And when the devices broke, they didn’t complain to the manufacturers. They were too embarrassed.
Marche thought of his strap-on penises as medical devices, but he sold them not just to doctors but also through wholesalers who then sold them to adult stores and through catalogs. And demand was huge. Why were Marche’s dildos so popular? These strap-on dildos avoided the threat of regular dildos, which were seen as penis replacements that allowed women to give themselves sexual pleasure. These devices put men back in the picture. Strap-on dildos didn’t replace men; they augmented men. They made men sexual cyborgs. A man wearing a strap-on penis is still following the sexual script of the time: penetrating a woman and being the provider of her sexual pleasure. Strap-on dildos were devices that strengthened marriage. They did not shake up the sexual status quo, nor did they alter gender norms. A dildo’s purpose was enshrined within the term used to describe it at the time: a marital aid. And letters to Marche Manufacturing made it clear that the dildos were, in fact, being used to improve marriages.
Today, few companies call their sex toys “marital aids,” and the taboo against sex toys has lessened—but it hasn’t gone away. A recent case in Massachusetts involves local residents who are trying to prevent a sex toy and lingerie store from opening up because they believe it will ruin the community. One resident said its effect would be as bad as having a prison located in the city, and it would attract sex offenders.
It’s likely that part of their problem is that the store isn’t being marketed as containing “marital aids.” These sex toys are for pleasure, pure and simple—and female sexual pleasure, unmoored from procreation, is still something that is a threat to many people. Sex toys have come a long way since Marche’s day—appearing now on primetime television with nary a thought—but we still have a long way to go. Only when society becomes more accepting of female sexuality will sex toys stop creating a stir. Given the ongoing hostility to funding women’s reproductive health care, we’ve got a long way to go.
This excerpt was adapted from Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, out now with Pegasus.