Mystery and History of Condoms

I”ve listened to debates in the romance community over the use of condoms by characters of historical fiction, whether it”s over the historical accuracy of the availability and use of condoms for the era or the opinion that the use of contraception dims the romance.  I”ve read a few westerns where the hero takes such extra precautions and I always found the descriptions interesting, but I honestly didn”t know any history about the material or availability. I”m currently at work on a new series (honest, I”m writing!) and the heroine of the third book in this series is a doctor whose father was a physician who treated many unfortunate women put to work in the “cribs” of New York. Her exposure to her father”s practice has left her with strong views on self-preservation for these women now that she”s starting her own practice in the wilds of Montana. But I needed to know if her views would have been supported by other physicians of the time, and while these days it seems you can”t turn a corner without running into a condom ad, would they have been available to cowboys on the western front? For anyone else who”s curious, here”s the bare bones of my discovery:

The use of condoms has actually been traced back several thousand years. It is believed that around 1000 BC the ancient Egyptians used a linen sheath for protection against disease. The earliest evidence of condom use in Europe comes from scenes in cave paintings at Combarelles in France. There is also some evidence that some form of condom was used in imperial Rome.

The syphilis epidemic that spread across Europe gave rise to the first published account of the condom. Gabrielle Fallopius described a sheath of linen he claimed to have invented to protect men against syphilis. Having been found useful for prevention of infection, it was only later that the usefulness of the condom for the prevention of pregnancy was recognized. Later in the 1500s, one of the first improvements to the condom was made, when the linen cloth sheaths were sometimes soaked in a chemical solution and then allowed to dry prior to use. These were the first spermicides on condoms.

The first published use of the world “condum” was in a 1706 poem. It has also been suggested that Condom

Casanova entertained his women by blowing up his "English overcoats" like balloons (Library of Congress).

was a doctor in the time of Charles II. It is believed that he invented the device to help the king to prevent the birth of more illegitimate children. 18th century condoms were available in a variety of qualities and sizes, made from either linen treated with chemicals, or “skin” (bladder or intestine softened by treatment with sulphur and lye). They were sold at pubs, barbershops, chemist shops, open-air markets, and at the theater throughout Europe and Russia. The first recorded inspection of condom quality is found in the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova (which cover his life until 1774): to test for holes, he would often blow them up before use.

I found this picture and the next tidbit of info on the website of James Marsh–(History of the Condom
” Introduction” by James H. Marsh for the book Hardware: The Art of Prevention, edited by Hugh Rigby and Susan Leibtag)

The promise that the condom could, as Casanova himself wrote, put “one”s mind at rest” about unwanted pregnancy (and heirs) was the second great appeal. A 17th century poem by the son of a prominent English bishop even rejoiced in the liberating effect that the condom would have on young women, now freed from the “big Belly, and the squawking brat.”

Early condoms were made from sheep”s caeca, the large blind pouch forming the beginning of the large intestine. It was steeped in water, scraped and washed. “Superfine” condoms were scented, stretched on a mould and polished with glass. The first known advertisements for condoms, in 17th century London, were handbills carrying the following sales pitch:

“To guard yourself from shame or fear,
Votaries to Venus, fasten here;
None in our wares e”er found a flaw,
Self-preservation”s nature”s law.”

This now familiar claim of reliability resulted in orders from France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and elsewhere. However, they were quite expensive and the unfortunate result was that they were often reused. This type of condom was described at the time as “an armour against pleasure, and a cobweb against infection”. In the second half of the 1700″s, a trade in handmade condoms thrived in London and some shops where producing handbills and advertisements of condoms. In the 1840s, advertisements for condoms began to appear in British newspapers.

It was not until Goodyear invented the process of vulcanizing rubber in 1843-44 that there was a real means of producing cheaper and truly reliable condoms. The use of condoms was affected by technological, economic and social development in Europe and the US in the 1800s.

Condom manufacturing was revolutionized by the discovery of rubber vulcanisation by Goodyear (founder of the tyre company) and Hancock. This meant that is was possible to mass produce rubber goods including condoms quickly and cheaply. Vulcanisation is a process, which turns the rubber into a strong elastic material.

Since sex outside marriage or even within it, when it is not for the purpose of procreation, regarded as a sin in Western Christian society, the little apparatus was immediately reviled by the Church as a “filthy” and “nasty” incitement to lust. The attitude was that disease, even death, is just punishment for sexual transgression. Not everyone shared this view, and from the 1820s through the 1870s, popular women and men lecturers traveled around America teaching about physiology and sexual matters. Many of them sold birth control devices, including condoms, after their lectures. They were condemned by many moralists and medical professionals, including America”s first woman doctor Elizabeth Blackwell. Blackwell accused the lecturers of spreading doctrines of “abortion and prostitution”.

In 1861,the first advertisement for condoms was published in an American newspaper when The New York Times printed an ad. for “Dr. Power”s French Preventatives.” “Rubbers” became widely available, but they still needed a means of advertisement. This was provided by 19th century sociology as the Malthusian league persuasively linked overpopulation and poverty and made dire predictions for the future if population was not controlled. The League promoted the use of condoms but made little headway until two of its members were tried and jailed for their activities. Press reports of the trial carried information on contraception further than the League had dared. The spread of this information has been convincingly linked to the decline in the English birth rate in the late 19th century.

In 1873, the Comstock Law was passed in the United States. Named after Anthony Comstock, the Comstock Law made illegal the advertising of any sort of birth control, and it also allowed the postal service to confiscate condoms sold through the mail. State laws banned the manufacture and sale of condoms in thirty states.Incidentally, in the second half of the 19th century, American rates of sexually transmitted diseases skyrocketed. Causes cited by historians include effects of the American Civil War, and the ignorance of prevention methods promoted by the Comstock laws. To fight the growing epidemic, sexual education classes were introduced to public schools for the first time, teaching about venereal diseases and how they were transmitted. They generally taught that abstinence was the only way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms were not promoted for disease prevention; the moral watchdogs of the medical community considered STDs to be punishment for sexual misbehavior. The stigma on victims of these diseases was so great that many hospitals refused to treat people who had syphilis.

So, there you have it–like today”s media, more info than you ever wanted, huh? I also had to wonder if “Comstock” was a common name back then (Comstock Load) or one very prominent family–perhaps the source of another topic…  As for relevance to my work, my post-Civil-War series is set during the highpoint of contraceptive distribution and awareness, though my heroine”s views wouldn”t have been supported by popular opinion in the medical community. But then, my heroines tend to go against the grain 😉

Stacey Kayne
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Updated: April 14, 2015 — 1:48 pm

26 Comments

  1. I’m very glad to read your writing a new series. I am looking forward to reading it.

  2. Great research, Stacey. Always wondered about this issue myself. Thanks for the enlightment.
    So glad you’re writing again. We all go through times when writing has to be put aside for family needs. Can’t wait to see your next book.

  3. What fascinating information. This is always good information to fle away for later.
    Now, I can hardly wait to read your story.

  4. This has been a great week at Petticoats and Pistols for some fascinating topics of research. And this is another enlightening post, Stacey.

    Until I took a class in Grad school regarding the age of reform in America I never realized all the struggles involved in getting birth control to women (and men, but it seemed women were more interested at the time for self preservation). Off the top of my head I can’t remember names, but a group of women in Chicago took it upon themselves to distribute birth control to women in the tenement houses and suffered much abuse from the community and the husbands of the women. But they kept on helping these women out. It really is an interesting topic of research.

    Your new series sounds wonderful! Can’t wait to read it!

    –Kirsten

  5. Stacey, this is so interesting. I never knew that condoms went that far back. Do you know if they were common in the old West? I’m sort of assuming that they were pretty expensive and were probably available in the larger cities. But I can just see the postmaster opening up those condom packages. That would be funny. So was blowing them up to check for holes.

  6. One of Cheryl St. John’s books had a condom in it and the doctor explained (to his reluctant wife who was terrified of getting pregnant for very good reasons) what it all meant. It was interesting.

    And why do Regency novels call them French Letters?

  7. WOW STACEY! This is a great post. I never had any idea about all this. I’m wondering, like Mary, where they got the name French letters? This is just fascinating to me. My grandparents had 11 kids (Depression era). I asked Mom one time WHY didn’t granddad use a condom? She just died laughing and said, “OH, LORD! He would have been too embarrassed to have bought those!” (Which I thought was pretty funny, considering it didn’t embarrass him to keep Granny pregnant all of her adult life–like people wouldn’t know what caused THAT?) Can’t wait to read your new books!
    Hugs,
    Cheryl P.

  8. You may wish to read Deanna Raybourn’s Silent in the Grave. Can’t say more w/o spoiler alert.

  9. Awesome post, Stacey. I will savor this information for future reference. I just don’t get why men were so resistant to preventing pregnancy (macho-ism, I guess) and why they’d rather have tons of kids to pay for. And grrrr, I just hate the “moralizing” and “judging” so prevalent in our culture’s past.

    Excellent info today. Thanks. oxoxox

  10. What a fascinating and interesting post. It’s amazing to me how they considered a disease like syphilis to be just punishment for their lustful habits and then refuse to treat people. And the number of poor wives who were kept constantly pregnant with no say in the matter and no recourse to avoid pregnancy.

    Thanks for posting.

    Have a great day,

    Cher

  11. Thank you, Elizabeth! I’m looking forward to the excitement of having a new release–been a long time coming 🙂

  12. Thanks, Mary! Glad you enjoyed the info 😀

  13. Thanks for sharing, Kristin! It’s women just like those that get me pumped about history and spark my writing bug. How brave of them to fight against the social stigmas and put their own lives at risk to help others.

  14. Hi Linda! I have this image in my head of condoms being stocked somewhere near TOOTHBRUSHES–another item readily available in most shops in the west, yet overlooked by most of the population 😉

    But yeah, from all I’ve read, condoms were not outrageously expensive in the 1800’s and fairly common knowledge among the male population, there were those who used them, it just wasn’t socially accepted as good practice. There were quite a few brothels that supplied them, though most patrons didn’t use them.

  15. Hi Mary! “French Letters” is mainly a British term–it’s actually a name brand for condoms in the UK. The term is thought to have come into common use while British troops were fighting in France and syphilis (epidemic at the time) was thought to be a “French disease”. A certain British general wanted his troops supplied with French Letters 🙂

  16. Thanks, Cheryl 🙂 Yeah, social stigma is a scary beast, huh? It seems to me that just when education and use was on the rise, a panic in the religious sector rose up to shut it down. There is STILL a huge controversy in many religions on the moral properties of using contraceptives. Humans are a masochistic lot IMO 😀

  17. I’ll second that, Liz 😀

  18. I know, crazy, Tanya! STD’s kill. Legalized sales didn’t happen again until after the 1930’s, and the first national campaign for condom use didn’t happen until the AIDS epidemic hit in the 1980’s.

  19. Thank you, Cher! I have to say, I was really shocked to uncover the bias “popular view” on this by the medical community all the way up until the 20th century. Definitely boggles the mind.

  20. Great info!

  21. I take pride in pushing you into writing this post, Stacey. It is very interesting to see how these progressed over the years and all the problems then caused and prevented. I guess there is always going to be controversy.

    Hugs! And, keep on writing. 🙂

  22. I can always count on you for motivation, Paisley 😀 ox!

  23. Excellent research Stacey. I always struggle with dancing around the 1800s reality and our 21st century PC attitudes.

  24. I love Petticoats and Pistols. I never know what piece of wit and wisdom will pop up when I open it every day, even if I don’t get to it until late. Always interesting, educational, and fun. The ebb and flow of the acceptability of the condom as well as birth control in general is interesting. As usual, unless it was to the man’s advantage or he was interested, the woman was powerless to do much about it.
    Sadly, religion got in the way when it really shouldn’t have. Even more unfortunate is the fact that it is still happening today. I can understand medical personnel being against certain treatments or procedures based on their beliefs. If that is the case, refer the patient to someone who will treat them, don’t delay treatment until it is too late. I realize this is a bit off topic, but it also applies to sex education. Those in the system or in the community manage to prevent instruction in protection and treatment because they feel abstinence is the only option. Fine for them, but not everyone believes as they do.

    Stacey, thank you so much for an informative and interesting post. You answered a few questions I have had (French Letters being one) as well as gave some good information.
    Have a great Labor Day Weekend.

  25. Thanks, Patricia! Glad you made it over to share your thoughts 🙂

    Adding my Happy Labor Day wishes for the weekend!!

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