When a Baby Just Couldn’t Be Had

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 baby4.jpgquestion, 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.

So here you go, my friends. Birth control in the Old West.baby1.jpg

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:


*Prolonged Breastfeeding

*Coitus Interruptus

*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.

  baby3.jpg On a lighter note, please share your stories of your funniest or worst visit to your gynecologist.  Or how you learned about the birds and the bees.  Or anything about your first pregnancy or delivery.

You could win the drawing for a copy of WESTERN WINTER WONDERLAND, my Christmas anthology, signed by Jenna Kernan, Cheryl St.John and 9780373294671.jpgmyself!

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.

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Pam has written 30 romances, most of them historical westerns, but her newest releases are contemporary sweet romances featuring the Blackstone Ranch series published by Tule Publishing. Stay up on the latest at www.pamcrooks.com

29 thoughts on “When a Baby Just Couldn’t Be Had”

  1. Great post! I don’t think I would try any of these though. I kicked my doctor in the head when I was having my son. It was funny afterwards I thought.

  2. Oh man! Some of that stuff just sounds dangerous! Now, I know that prolonging breastfeeding doesn’t stop you from getting pregnant again. After my grandmother had my uncle, she was breastfeeding him and he started getting sick from her breastmilk. It turned out she was pregnant with my mom. Plus I’ve known a few women who thought they couldn’t get pregnant if they were breastfeeding and ended up pregnant because of it. Scary thought.

    Funniest visit to a OB/GYN- at our local health department they have socks or potholder mittens with smily faces painted on them over the stirrups! LOL I had to laugh the entire time I was on the table.

    Don’t really remember having a birds and bees talk. My mom told me about the female side and the most I remember about the sex was my dad yelling at me that I didn’t need to wear make-up because it was “war paint” to attract horny teenage boys and that he KNEW what boys were after, since he’d been one himself years ago. “Boys are only after one thing.”

    Dads are great with scare tactics on teenage girls! LOL I didn’t lose my virginity till I was 20! LOL

    The thing I remember most from my pregnancy was that my husband kept insisting that the men in his family only had boys, so he was sure I was having a boy. We opted not to find out the gender and it didn’t really matter since my one and only ultrasound, baby had legs crossed Indian style.

    My doctors, the nurses, and even the lab techs all assumed I was having a girl. Every visit they’d say, “So, you’re having a girl right?” and I would tell them I didn’t know. I felt I was having a girl though and prayed for it.

    In my mind, I already had a boy- my stepson, so I wanted a daughter. Especially after an argument early on in my pregnancy wherein my loving husband told me outright we weren’t having any more kids after this one, whether I got my girl or not. Two kids were all he ever wanted, regardless of it being my first pregnancy.

    I dreamt I had a girl though during my pregnancy and named her Dakota Shyanne, the name we had picked out for a girl. Picking the boy name came very late in my pregnancy.

    My daughter was born on Friday, December 13th, and I cried when my doctor said, “It’s a girl!” and laid her on my stomach. I remember feeling relieved and said “I got my girl.”

    Koty (Dakota Shyanne) is my pride and joy. I can’t listen to Martina McBride’s In My Daughter’s Eyes without getting all wishy-washy.

  3. I remember in Cheryl St. John’s book The Doctor’s Wife, they used a condom. I can’t say the exact date of it but I thought that was interesting.
    And in Linda Howard’s Angel Creek, they used little sponges soaked in vinegar.
    You know historical references to birth control are pretty minimal. This was interesting. You’ve gotta wonder though if the crocodile dung wasn’t picked specifically because it had a degrading aspect to it. To put women down in some way.
    As for OB/GYN stories…
    The first one that came to mind was when I was giving birth to my first child. Very, very late in the process the doctor is saying, “Keep pushing, I can see the ears, here comes the little GUY now.”
    I just remember lying there…twelve hours of labor…major exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed and insanely emotional. And registering that ‘little guy’ thing and thinking with total seriousness,
    “Can you tell it’s a boy by it’s ears?”
    Then my next thought was, “Well, he’s a doctor, he probably has his ways.”

  4. Hi Pam! Wow! This is some great information. I didn’t realize women were actually this inventive or advanced back then when it came to contraception. When I was a teenager, I remember being embarrassed because my mom breastfed my younger siblings so loooong. Later, I realized that was her method of birth control — recommended by her mother (who had 16 children). LOL! There’s gotta be a joke in there somewhere.

    Can’t wait to hear about the guys. I’ve always wondered if they really did “put a sock on it.” :o)

  5. Gynos always have the prettiest jewelry don’t they? I’m always hoping a bracelet or a watch will slip off up in there.

  6. Good morning, ladies!

    Stacy, you weren’t buckled into stirrups during delivery? I think most every woman would want to kick her doctor in the head about then.

    Taryn, your dad and mine could’ve been brothers. I was the oldest of seven, so I had to break through concrete walls to pay the way for my siblings. By the time my folks got down to my youngest sister, she could wrangle them any direction she wanted.

  7. Mary, once again you had me laughing about the ears story. Given your state of mind, I can see how you would–or wouldn’t–question his diagnosis.

    Devon, I know what you mean about inventiveness. Who would think to use an orange peel? Or–crocodile dung???

    I was a very devoted member of La Leche League, and they advocated prolonged nursing, too. I took it in stride, but not everyone did.

  8. Great information, Pam. Since I’ve long wondered about this myself, your research is greatly appreciated. As for the other question–my mother didn’t tell me anything! I remember being clustered in a closed bedroom with my college dorm-mates, passing around a book called “Love without Fear” that made sex sound like a major medical procedure. We were all horrified. Yeah, times have changed.

  9. Hi Pam! Great subject and really interesting to see how enterprising those women were even under the circumstances. I had to research birth control methods myself when I wrote Redemption. I used an old Native American therapy which was black haw tonic derived from the cotton root bark. They seemed to have pretty good luck with it but it was kinda dangerous if not given in the right proportion. I’ll bet it tasted yucky. Can only imagine. I The only GYN incident I had was that some toilet paper had stuck and he found it. Very embarrassing! Lord, I could’ve died. I’m sure he’d probably seen everything though.

  10. Loved the research and pictures of the babies *G*

    LOL on the jewlery, Melissa!

    I don’t have any amusing OB/GYN stories. My most memorable birth event out of four was when my third was born – my strapping son. I was all gung ho Lamaze until that point where you go WHAT THE %$%## was I THINKING!? No anesthetic for the stitches (no details here to spare the unwary) and my husband held me down. Afterward, he was all smiles and said, “That was GREAT! Let’s do it again!” I’m surprised he lived to father one more child.

  11. There’s no birth control in any of my books. my heroine’s just get pregnant over and over and over it seems.
    Although in the one I just finished writing, the major form of birth control used there is a cast iron skillet.

  12. Hi, Melissa! Gosh, jewelry left behind? LOL. Oh, my. I’ve only had two ob/gyns in my life, and both were male, so not a lot of jewelry.

    Hey, Elizabeth and Pat! Great to hear from you! Elizabeth, I hope you and anyone else will print out my findings. You just never know when a tidbit of info can come in handy. And they often add such realism to our stories.

    Linda, too funny on the TP!! You’re right–docs have seen it all!

    Cheryl, men don’t have a clue, do they? I mean, NO CLUE!

    Cast iron skillet contraception. Yep, that’ll work! LOL.

  13. When I was in the middle of pushing my daughter out I could feel my face tingling so I yell to my husband that I was hyperventillating and needed my paper bag from my bag. He doesn’t want to spend the time finding the bag so he throws me a bag from his breakfast and I realize that he had gotten an onion bagel which is the fragrance I’m inhaling as I am giving birth to out daughter.

  14. Fascinating post! Some of those sound pretty disgusting or downright scary to try.

    With my first pregnancy I had horrible heartburn. Just thinking about the pain makes me cringe. He was born with a full head of hair. He has these gorgeous lashes as well that he loves to use when he flirts. My one year old was not born with near as much hair as her big brother and some stubby eyelashes. The heartburn was so much more manageable as well.

  15. LOL, Mary! My heroine in MUSTANG WILD used the cast iron skillet contraception too *lol*

    Wow, Pam! What an interesting post!!

    Craziest time for me was when we actually wanted to GET pregnant–took us a year and a half of trying everything short of infertility drugs. Charts, books and themometors can sure take the romance out of the whole event *lol* — finally, we gave up, decided we’d go back to the old-fashioned method of waiting until the mood strikes and just havin’ a good time….got pregnant the next month *lol*

  16. Maureen, breathing in onion at a time like that would cure me from them for a good long while. You poor thing! I’ll bet you think of that every time you see an onion bagel, eh?

    Cherie J–hair and heartburn. Funny! I’ve never heard of that, but it seemed to be true with your little one! I’ll bet your little guy was a beautiful baby with all that hair!

  17. Stacey, I’m so glad you got your boys after all your hard work in planning for them. But I’ve heard more than once that when a woman relaxes, yep, pretty soon there’s a baby on the way!

  18. Interesting post. My first visit to the doctor, I was very curious about the little card and piece of chocolate sitting on the examining table. I picked it up and read it and it said: “I know this visit is no treat, but here is something a little sweet.” Or something like that. I, of course, added my own line: “I know this visit is no treat, so here is something a little sweet. Now lie back and prop up your feet.” LOL

  19. I had never had a vaginal exam until I was pregnant with my first child. That was the most embarassing time in my life. No one had told me what to expect.

  20. I love the olive oil method – all my grandparents came from Sicily and all my mom knows is that her mom used something and it must have worked since instead of the usual dozen kids, she only had 3 lol.

    My first labor was 29 hours and instead of the gradual contractions that I was told about, they came 3-4 min. every time!!! I finally ended up with a C-Section but I still think it’s because the Doctor was tired!! My second child came natural (11 hours – a cinch).

  21. Great post. When I was expecting my second child, I headewd for the doctor. It was time for a pelvic exam. In walked my doctor and a young medical student who immediately recognised me as his babysitter! After some conversation about our past with me trying to figure out how to get out of this, my doctor sent him on to the next room to start a well baby checkup. Of course after the young man left the room, my doctor said he thought paybacks were only right as I had changed the young man’s diapers years before.

  22. What a fantastic post, but with some of those methods how many women lived to tell?

    I’ve never had anything funny, exciting, or interesting happen in a doctor’s office. It can be embarrassing enough without anything extra going on. And you might say I cheated on the birth of my children. I let other women go through labor then I adopted the babies. Of course the birthmothers missed the 2 a.m. feedings, childhood diseases, school problems, driving, dating, marriage, grandchildren. Well, one birthmother hasn’t missed it all since that adoption was open. Our grandchildren are just realizing they have another grandmother that they have visited before as a friend.

    Your experiences are interesting and funny.

  23. Jennifer, I love the chocolate treat story! That you were able to keep your sense of humor through your first time is amazing! I still remember my first time to the gyno and it was mortifying.

    Jeanne, you’re right–Italians have big families. I would think that olive oil would get pretty messy, tho. Sheesh!

  24. Connie, how mortifying it would’ve been to have that young man examining you. Thank goodness your doctor spared you. (I would’ve insisted upon it!!)

    Hello, Mildred. Good to see you here!

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