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
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 😉