A while back, when I blogged about soiled doves, Tanya Hanson asked about birth control and what women did to prevent disease. It was an excellent question, one I had long been curious about myself. Tanya provided me with the incentive to finally lay those curiosities to rest.
But, I gotta tell ya, it took some doing. Information was scarce. I rolled up my shirt sleeves and sought help from a soiled dove expert who recommended some resources. None of the libraries in my area had those books, but I found them online and promptly bought them. I also stumbled upon a book detailing the history of contraceptives in America, which proved my biggest treasure of all.
First off, let me explain why information was–and still is–difficult to obtain for that period. A religious zealot, Anthony Comstock, was so incensed by the lewdness he observed in New York streets during the 1860’s that he surreptitiously wrote a law that would forbid it, along with the plentiful printed matter that openly promoted/advertised promiscuous living. An over-worked Congress quickly passed the bill, their intent being to keep the integrity of the mails safe, yet it’s doubtful anyone realized at the time the immensity of what they’d done.
In its attempt to stop the spread of pornography, the Comstock Act of 1873 targeted information on contraception as being obscene, making it illegal to advertise or ship said information and devices. Postal inspectors hired secret agents to enforce the law, an overwhelming job at best. And while that could be a story in itself, (as well as how creative entrepreneurs evaded the law), needless to say, with the end of the Victorian era, sex thrived.
(Disclaimer: Before we go on, I in no way endorse any of these methods, however promising they might seem. Please do not try these at home.)
Now, where were we?
Contraceptives have been around *forever*. As in 1850 B.C. forever. The oldest known guide was found in an Egyptian papyrus which described vaginal suppositories made of crocodile dung, gum, or a mixture of honey and sodium carbonate. In actuality, there was some validity to the honey mixture, as it did seem to impede sperm motility.But crocodile dung? Yeesh.
In 4th century B.C., Aristotle writes how women coated their cervixes with olive oil. (Now, this one worked. Relatively recent studies done on 2,000 women resulted in a 0% pregnancy rate with olive oil being the only contraception.)
A few others from early times: West African women used crushed root for intra-vaginal plugs. Japanese women, bamboo tissue. Easter Island woman made algae and seaweed pessaries. Islamic guides from the 13th century recommended elephant dung which has more acidity and would’ve offered more protection than the crocodile’s stuff.
Time went on. In pre-industrial America, women depended on methods many of us recognize today:
*Rhythm method–counting days on the calendar. Women were instructed by their physicians to count 14 days after the cessation of their menstrual period. (Too bad the docs hadn’t figured out that was her most fertile time.)
*Squatting over a pot of steaming water immediately after sex to help fumigate internal organs.
As women moved further into the isolation of the west, they fashioned homemade remedies such as:
*Vinegar and water douches
*Diaphragms made from hollowed-out lemons, orange peels or beeswax
*Vaseline (I found this in several resources. Mixed with salicylic acid (similar to aspirin), it destroyed sperm without injury to the vagina or cervix.)
*Cocoa butter and boric acid. Another strange one. Recipe in hand, women got together to make these like we’d get together and bake cookies. They took a shoe box and poked holes in the lid, then put the cocoa butter in and added the boric acid which made little cones.
*Sanitary sponges–dipped in antiseptic, they were used to keep the ladies ‘germ-free’. (Germ meaning sperm.)
While doing this research, I was struck by the lengths women went through to control the size of their families. Hindered by the Comstock laws, they were forced to depend on each other to learn and protect themselves with what little they had.
Next time, the male side of contraception.
I’ll go first. My daughter–when she found out I was working on this blog–told me how her doctor (a female) was doing a pap smear on her right before Thanksgiving. In the middle of the exam, the doc said, “Mmm, mmmm, mmm. I could sure go for some pecan pie right now!! I love pecan pie around Thanksgiving!!” Thinking it was the oddest, most bizarre thing ever to say to someone in stirrups during their annual exam, my daughter still giggles about it.