Hidden Treasures

San Francisco’s lesser-known museums celebrate the unusual.

Laughing Sal at Playland-Not-At-The-Beach in El Cerrito.
Laughing Sal at Playland-Not-At-The-Beach in El Cerrito.

Walking into the San Francisco sex toy shop Good Vibrations, you might never suspect that beyond the walls of dildos, paddles and other accessories for the bedroom there’s a museum completely dedicated to the evolution of vibrators.

Then again, San Francisco is a city that celebrates eccentricity, especially when it comes to its unusual attractions. Beyond all the usual big-name tourist attractions, the San Francisco area is packed full of tiny, offbeat, out-of-the-way museums that focus on topics that aren’t quite in the mainstream. Like vibrators.

The Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum (1620 Polk St.) is the kind of titillating experience that reminds us that the backstory about buzzworthy sex toys for women is worth knowing. The collection — originally started by Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank — has more than 100 vibrators, including three hand-cranked contraptions and one compressed-air version called the Detwiller.

“We also have a one-off, only-one-of-its-kind vibrator made in a commune in the 1960s,” says Carol Queen, the museum’s curator and staff sexologist. “I call it the Hippie Homemade. It has a motor repurposed from a Korean War-era military radio and a handle made of a Revere Ware saucepan.”

For a more G-rated outing, treat your inner child to a day at Playland-Not-at-the-Beach (10979 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito). This mecca of pinball machines, arcade games and carnival attractions promises to trigger childhood memories spent in video game arcades and pinball parlors. Visitors can play more than 30 pinball machines for free, as well as video games, carnival skill-based games and antique penny arcades.

Historic exhibits with artifacts from the Sutro Baths and Whitney’s Playland in San Francisco are also on display. Most notable is the Marcks Family Miniature Circus — a miniature representation of the Sells Floto Circus from the 1930s — consisting of 300,000 pieces that include tiny hand-carved animals and people under a vintage circus tent.

If candy toys are more to your taste, then the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia (214 California Dr., Burlingame) is worth a trip. This comprehensive collection includes every Pez dispenser ever made — 550 and counting. The museum also showcases unlicensed, bootleg Pez dispensers that pay tribute to everything from the Pillsbury doughboy to Elvis. According to the museum’s owner, Gary Doss, the rarest Pez product in the collection is the 1970’s “Make A Face” Pez (think Mr. Potato Head) that was taken off the market due to concerns that children might eat the detachable parts.

For a trip into San Francisco’s notorious counter-culture history, there’s the LSD Museum (2475 Mission St.). Also known as the Blotter Barn or the Institute of Illegal Images, this unique museum is run by curator Mark McCloud out of his home and features an extensive gallery of more than 33,000 inactive blotter sheets and individual acid tabs collected from the 1960’s to the present.

The acid sheets, displayed in frames hanging on the museum’s walls, look more like works of psychedelic art than a history lesson. In addition to spiraling fractals and trippy background art, the blotter sheets also display a range of well-known characters printed on them, including the Grateful Dead logo, Mickey Mouse and Snoopy.

The whole surreal experience of seeing so much LSD art in one place either will leave visitors feeling like they’ve stumbled upon the ultimate acid flashback or make them twitch with paranoia that the DEA will bust down the doors at any moment.


Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum, 1620 Polk St., San Francisco: Visitors can help support the museum by buying a vibrator or other pleasure item from the Good Vibrations store, which maintains the collection and offers free museum tours to the public.

Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, 10979 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito: Admission is $10 to $15 based on age.

Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, 214 California Dr., Burlingame: Adult admission is $3.

LSD Museum, 2475 Mission St., San Francisco: As you might expect, the LSD Museum has irregular hours, but if you plan on visiting, email curator Mark McCloud at mark@blotterbarn.com to schedule a tour. Admission is free.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Other Offbeat San Francisco Tourist Attractions

Camera Obscura, 1096 Point Lobos Ave.: Based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci and installed in 1946 next to the historic Cliff House, Camera Obscura projects a reflected image of its surroundings onto a viewing table.

The Audium Theater of Sound-Sculptured Space, 1616 Bush St.: This ear-tingling attraction might be easier to experience than to explain. The 49-seat theater’s 176 speakers envelope listeners in moving sounds.

The Octagon House, 2645 Gough St.: Built in 1861, this sort of eight-sided house was all the rage at the time, thanks to an 1848 book called “The Octagon House: A Home For All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building” written by phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler. He claimed the octagon shape improved heating and cooling and made the house easier to build with fewer materials.

Author and journalist Bonnie Burton writes about pop culture and entertainment.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Culture