A Brief History of Contraception

For as long as human beings have been having sex, they’ve also been searching for ways to prevent pregnancy.

You might think this is morally wrong. And that’s fine. If you choose not to use it, that’s okay. But all over the world there are people who do use it for a variety of reasons.

Maybe you are low-income and can’t afford to take care of a child in the way you want to. Maybe you’re not married and want the emotional and economic support of a spouse. Maybe you have health problems and don’t want to risk your life or that of a potential child. Maybe you don’t feel emotionally capable of taking care of another human being. There are literally thousands of reasons a person might choose not to have children. All of them are valid.

For the sake of this post, I’m going to focus on the devices, tools, chemicals, and medications that have been used throughout history, up to around 1900. I’m going to skip over a lot, because entire books have been written on the subject, by far more qualified people than myself. I’ll be including a list of books and websites at the end of the follow up post on Friday if you want to continue researching on your own.

I’m not here to argue if contraception is right or wrong. Right now, I’m just looking at the historical techniques used.

Some of the earliest tools used were sponges, inserted into the cervix, sometimes with a string attached like a tampon to make removal easier. These sponges were often soaked in vinegar or wine, which was used as an early spermicide. According to Planned Parenthood, modern sponges used a cervical caps are about 76% effective, which means for ancient women that’s not bad at all. It would have been one of the most reliable methods out there prior to the invention of the condom.

The difference is that modern sponges are made of rubber and can be sanitized while the natural sponges used historically, um, weren’t. They probably weren’t cleaned frequently or well, and the liquids used might not have been all that pure. Not to mention the cleanliness of the hands using them. Infection and disease was a problem, even aside from the fact that sponges do absolutely nothing to prevent the spread of STDs/STIs like syphilis.

The advantage of the sponge, however, was that it was more comfortable than the other options, which were…uh…not flexible. At all. Ancient Egyptian women used stone (ouch!) and cervical caps made of metal or glass can be found all the way up into the 1900s. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if one of those devices “failed” mid-use.

Other items Egyptian women stuck up their hoo-has to prevent pregnancy include honey, papyrus, lint, acacia leaves and/or acacia gum (which does actually have spermicidal properties and is still used today), ant paste and crocodile dung.

Egyptian women were clearly a lot braver than me.

Across the Mediteranian, Greek women thought Silphium was an oral contraceptive. This rare plant was once worth it’s weight in silver, but don’t rush out to the grocery store just yet. For starters, it’s extinct, and as far as historians can tell has no actual ability to prevent pregnancy.

Green women also used vaginal plugs of a variety of materials, possibly the most effective being those involving oils as they slow down the movement of sperm. Still not terribly effective, but better than crocodile dung.

In China, men were discouraged from having too much sex as it was thought to reduce their “vital energy” or yang. Women who no longer wanted children were perscribed a concoction of mercury and oil. Since mercury leads to heavy metal poisoning, insanity, organ failure, and a break down of the nervous system, that may have been pretty effective.

Islamic women in the 9-10th centuries were told to use pitch, which just sounds like a mess. The doctor who recommended this technique did not include instructions for cleaning up afterward, or information on how to get it out again.

In medieval Europe, largely ruled by the Catholic church, contraception was considered amoral and could result in all sorts of punishments. Women practiced it in secret, though most of their efforts leaned toward abortion and infanticide, and those were easier for a woman to manage on her own without a man’s knowledge.

Condoms were introduced sometime in the 17th century, though they were seen as a way to prevent the spread of STIs, not pregnancy. Early condoms were reusable, intended to be rinsed out after use, and were made of animal intestines. These fragile condoms were not the type to be whipped out in the heat of the moment; they required soaking for at least an hour before use and had to be tied on. Other materials of early condoms include fabric (talk about rug burn), and leather.

Later vulcanized rubber was used, but the material had to be so thick that it completely removed any sensation during “the act,” and were therefore shunned by most until synthetic rubber and thinner condoms were developed. While they were created around the turn of the century, it wasn’t until WWI that they became more widespread.

Much to my surprise, most of these commercial products from the 18th and 19th century could be purchased from the pharmacy, though they were behind the counter and had to be asked for specifically. Birth control was not a thing publicly discussed. Upper class people would send their servants to buy condoms or diaphragms, while the lower classes were usually denied access on the grounds that it was “immoral.”

Another common method used by women all over the world was douching, or rising the vaginal area. Everything from hot water or vinegar all the way up to Lysol was used. Yes, that Lysol. The same stuff you use to clean your toilet. In the 1920s and 30s it was actually advertised for this purpose, though the company no longer recommends using their products in this way, despite changes to the formula so that modern bleach is only about 1/3 as potent as the stuff our great-grandmothers (or great-great) would have been using.

(For the love of yarn, don’t go putting bleach on your skin. Especially down there. You do not want vaginal chemical burns!)

Around 1900 is when things started to make a turn. Between 1900 and 1980 changes in laws and morals saw the expansion of women’s health and accessibility to birth control and abortion. In my next post I’ll take a look at both the dark side of this history, and the good that came from it.

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