A History of Birth Control
Clearing Up Misconceptions
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
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
Abortion-inducing herbs such as savin and pennyroyal also were used, as
were pessaries -- substances or devices inserted into the vagina to block or
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."
The Failure of Rhythm and 'Just Say No'
The rhythm method -- that is, having sex only during a woman's
"safe period" when she is not ovulating -- was widely recommended by
doctors. But doctors had it wrong. Based on animal observations, they thought
women were "safe" at the midpoint of their menstrual cycle. This is
precisely when women are most likely to conceive. So women who could
afford medical advice actually were told to have sex at the exact time they
were most likely to become pregnant.