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A History of Birth Control

Clearing Up Misconceptions
WebMD Feature

Aug. 6, 2001 -- The controversial topic of birth control seems like a modern issue -- but it's not. Long before the pill, U.S. men and women wanted -- and successfully used -- a variety of contraceptive devices.

In her new book, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, historian Andrea Tone, PhD, notes that such devices were widely available in the U.S. both before and after the Comstock law of 1873 that declared contraception to be both obscene and illegal.

"Irrespective of the status of the law, men and women have used birth control -- and mostly it has been successful birth control," says Tone, of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "The law had very little impact on people's desires and ability to get their hands on what were contraband items. But illegality does not give people the advantage of using goods that are properly tested. Much of the history of black-market birth control involves needless suffering, pain, death in a few cases -- and pregnancy."

Dozens of Devices

Before the Industrial Revolution, birth control devices in America relied largely on condoms for men -- fashioned from linen or from animal intestines -- and on douches made for and by women from common household ingredients. Abortion-inducing herbs such as savin and pennyroyal also were used, as were pessaries -- substances or devices inserted into the vagina to block or kill sperm.

The invention of rubber vulcanization in 1839 soon led to the beginnings of a U.S. contraceptive industry producing condoms (now often called "rubbers"), intrauterine devices or IUDs, douching syringes, vaginal sponges, diaphragms and cervical caps (then called "womb veils"), and "male caps" that covered only the tip of the penis. British playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw called the rubber condom the "greatest invention of the 19th century."

When these devices were declared illegal, the flourishing trade simply began selling them as "hygiene" products. For example, vaginal sponges were sold to protect women from "germs" instead of sperm. This led to misleading if not downright fraudulent advertising. From 1930 until 1960, the most popular female contraceptive was Lysol disinfectant -- advertised as a feminine hygiene product in ads featuring testimonials from prominent European "doctors." Later investigation by the American Medical Association showed that these experts did not exist.

"The fraud of the Lysol douche was a byproduct of illegality," Tone says. "Because birth control couldn't be advertised openly, manufacturers would use euphemisms to refer to birth control. They took advantage of consumers' hopes."

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