Contraceptive Contraptions: A history of the condom

The earliest known image of STD protection dates back to 1000BC Egypt. (Images sourced from Perera (2004) "Taking Precautions". pg 94.

The earliest known image of STD protection dates back to 1000BC Egypt. (Images sourced from Perera (2004) Taking Precautions: An intimate history of birth control. pg 94.

A site about condoms and condom stories is never complete, and neither is the lavish, outlandish history of the device.  It’s history is full of insights into human character with all its flaws and foibles.

The invention of the latex condom is relatively new in modern history.  However, the principle to protect against sexually transmitted diseases and infections (STIs) dates back to at least 1,000BC (Perera, 2004: 95).  Ancient Egyptians were protecting themselves with linen sheaths from a parasitic disease known as Schistosomiasis.  Anthropologists have also found evidence of female condoms to prevent pregnancy.  The Petri Papyrus of 1850BC lists several female condoms, one of which was crocodile’s dung cut up on auyt-paste and inserted into the vagina.  In fact, animal dung was used as a female contraceptive across many societies.  The Aztec Badianus manuscript of 1552 explains, “and you shall put into the vulva the crushed herb of the calabash or cucurbita root and eagle’s excrement.”  Dung stuffed linen aside, the one devise that could protect against both STDs and pregnancy wasn’t produced until 1855 during the industrial revolution and the advent of vulcanized rubber.

Of course, when safer sex first became a known practice in ancient societies, the scientific frameworks for understanding biology, medicine, sexuality, and public health were vastly different.  Hippocrates, the father of western medicine once stated, “After coitus if the woman ought not to conceive, she makes it a custom for the semen to fall outside when she wishes this” (R.I.Chalmers, 1987)… pause … blink … isn’t this reminiscent of the 2012 Teaparty Candidate Todd Akin’s infamous statement that women’s bodies can prevent pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape”?

Anyway, I’m not stating that the risks of unwanted pregnancies and transmitting or contracting STIs is significantly less in contemporary life because we may have greater public awareness and better medical technology.  Rather it’s to recognize that health science and perceptions of “risks” and “healthy” sexuality are products of social contexts- its history and location, politics and economics- and therefore have a transformable quality.  That’s what makes the story of the condom throughout human civilization so interesting; because, like a flirtatious cuttlefish, it morphs into so many different types, shapes, and sizes, not to mention the amount of knowledge, myth and stigma that have carried throughout its making.

Contraceptive Censorship

Just to mention a few effects of stigma: In 1873, the U.S. government illegalized the advertisement of any contraception. That same set of laws also allowed for the confiscation of condoms sent through the mail and banned the sale of any condoms in up to thirty states (Collier, 2007).  Due to the belief that venereal disease was the price one paid for sinful choices, health experts from The American Social Hygiene Association objected to American soldiers being issued condoms- so during WWI they weren’t (Perera, 2004).

Skip over 113 years and we face statistics like 35% of all U.S. sex education programs require abstinence be taught as the ONLY option for unmarried people and either prohibit any discussions of contraception or limit discussions to its ineffectiveness.  Stigma still runs amuck sexuality and safer sex practices today.

So what preceded the latex condom?  As the most basic device for safe sex, different versions of the barrier method were utilized in most societies for millennium, and thus it is near impossible to account for all sexual practices, customs, beliefs, and attitudes.  Here we take a glimpse into some western society habits in which the devise was made at the expense of sexual pleasure; almost all made with only hetero-male health and interests in mind; and certainly most practices kept in secrecy from public mind and records.

Medieval to Victorian, Dung to Intestine   

The first western medical record of the condom is found in Gabriello Falloppio’s book on syphilis published in 1564 when the STD was a European epidemic.  He details condoms that he made from linen sheaths dipped in salt and herbs and tied under the foreskin.  Nothing in his records test comfort or sexual satisfaction, but we do know that animal intestines eventually became the superior condom material.

Users tended to hail from higher-income strata as condom were expensive and available only in boutique shops in the cities where seamstresses handmade each baudruches. Louis XVI could afford to have his animal-bowel condoms lined with velvet and silk.  There were some available for those with less income if one was willing to buy second-hand.  As Shyama Perera’s explains in her book Taking Precautions: An intimate history of birth control (2004), there was a “Miss Jenny” in 1820s London who hand-washed used condoms and resold them at a more affordable price.

The Rise of Rubber

By the 1850s, vulcanized rubber was invented and condoms started to roll out of factories.  The process was labor intensive as each rubber condom was dipped in cement and then hand-shaped and smoothed by rubbing and trimming.  It was also a major fire hazard because gasoline and benzene were used to suspend the rubber.  Rubber condoms were reusable and had a shelf life of about 3 months making them more economical, but the “skin” condoms remained the preferred product for better comfort and sensitivity (keep in mind, lubricant wasn’t invented until 1957.  Ouch!).  Also, at this time, there were no standard quality control methods.  According to condom historian, Aine Collier, some American factories sold their defective condoms at a cheaper price rather than discard them.

Another outcome of the Industrial Revolution was the beginning shifts of condoms away from a sign of wealth towards health.  By WWI, the use of condoms was more prominent among European soldiers as the rate of STDs increased.  Armed forces would distribute them for free to its members even in countries where condoms were illegal for the general population (the U.S. military did not catch on to condom sense until WWII).

Introducing Trojan Latex

In 1920, Young Rubber Company, the makers of Trojan, was the first to manufacture a latex condom, which was a great improvement from the rubber condom because they were easier and far less of a fire hazard to produce.  Latex is also thinner, smoother, and stronger with longer lasting shelf life then rubber.  By 1932, Europe’s first latex condom, Durex, was manufactured on conveyor system assembly lines, making them far less labor intensive nor subject to human error.

Marie Stopes’s first health clinic in London did make condoms readily available and was the only outlet from which women could buy them.  However, the clinic encouraged women to use female contraceptive techniques, such as the cervical cap, rather than rely on protection made for men.

Quality Control

Stigma around the use of contraceptives continued and disinformation meant that not everyone trusted condoms.  Of course, the lack of quality control specifications didn’t help.  Perera (2004) documents rumors stating that Catholic factory staff would deliberately poke holes in condoms.  The introduction of electronic testing machines helped eradicate rumors.  By 1957, the manufacturing process advanced to dramatically reduce the amount of defective rubber and latex, and also allow the first lubricated condom on the market.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that most countries in Europe and North America established a certification of national standard specifications for condoms manufacturers to follow.

What were once common problems of slippage and breakage are virtually obsolete with contemporary production.  Today, different studies on latex condom breakage tend to reflect a breakage rate of around .4%, or only 4 breaks in every 1,000 uses.  Which means that if a condom breaks than it is highly likely caused by user-error rather than manufacturer issues.

The Discovery of AIDS and Height of Condom Use

With industrialization, condoms increasingly became relied upon.  Yet it wasn’t until the 1980s and 90s when HIV/AIDS was first declared a pandemic, that condoms became fervently promoted by governments and health organizations.  Within the first year of the UK campaign, condom sales increase by 20%. 1988 was the first time in condom history in which condoms were the most popular birth control choice for British married couples.  In the U.S., condoms ranked third in popularity among married couples, and a strong second among single women following the Pill.

The Femidom

It was during the time of the first HIV/AIDS crisis that the female condom was manufactured on a large scale despite many experts’ false and damaging advice that women were at “low risk” of contracting HIV.  The Femidom, or FC2, is far more advanced than lemon halves used by ancients and cervical caps promoted in the 1920, which do not protect against STDs/STIs.   The FC2 is a device made of polyurethane that is inserted into the vagina with a wide base that sits on the outer parts of the vulva.  Besides allowing females to be in control of condom use, another advantage of the FC2, is that it can be inserted for up to 8 hours before sex- so no intermission needed for application.

Contemporary Condom Conundrum

The twenty-first century condom is produced by a greater range of manufacturers, non-profit organizations, and government programs around the world.  Thanks to modern technological innovation, condoms are far more comfortable, safer, stronger, and smoother then Greek goat’s bladders or oiled silk paper.  Who knows what the next advancement will be.  There are reports of spray-on condoms in the midst.

The promotion and availability of condoms has also dramatically improved.  Nowadays, condoms are typically displayed in public restrooms, supermarkets and pharmacies, or bought in bulk online without age restriction or parental consent required.  And they are affordable enough to not need rinsing and re-using!

Condoms have reached a status of “common sense” for many.  An American-based 2010 study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that the condom is the most common protection used at first intercourse (females 68% and males 80%).

However, the same study found that as individuals continue to have sex, their use of condoms decreases as they get older.  The rate of STDs/STIs is extremely high among American youth:  One in two sexually active individuals will get a STD usually before the age of 25.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, two-thirds of all individuals who become infected with STIs in the United States are younger than 25 years old!  The reason for this is because young people simply are not using condoms and other barriers consistently or correctly to protect themselves and their partners.

Want to see a visual account of condom history?  Here is a mini-documentary (7:47min.) by Trojan to commemorate Condom Month (February, of course), and posted by Queerty Online Mag.

…So the condom campaign continues.  History never ends.  For a more on problems with condom use, read here about the case to include more condoms in everyday popular culture.



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