Historical Contraception Part I

Contraception – The History And It’s Place In Historical Romance.

Courtesy of Pixabay

Courtesy of Pixabay

A disclaimer here: This blog is a historical view of contraception and does not reflect any personal views for or against contraception and abortion.

Contraception has been in modern news a lot lately. I won’t touch that political hot button but as a historical writer I have wondered exactly how an eighteenth or nineteenth century woman prevented pregnancy or even if she could! And does of any it matter to my historical writing?

Before writing a historical novel we research everyday life extensively. Most of this research never sees the light of day on the pages of our books but we do it because one, it helps us lay the groundwork for the novel as well as the atmosphere and two, it prevents awkward mistakes. Since what went on behind closed doors is very much a part of everyday life, some knowledge of contraceptive history isn’t without merrit.

In researching this topic I was reminded of my own family history, which is similar to many others back in the day. Families were bigger — a lot bigger!

My grandmother, Clara McPherren was born one of 21 children! Her father wore out his first wife with ten children. Upon her death, he remarried and that marriage produced 11 more children one of which included my grandmother.

Courtesy of Pixabay

Courtesy of Pixabay

Grandma Clara along with my research confirmed that farmers back in the day wanted big families to help out with farm work. I’m guessing the same was true with ranching and many other professions. Since the mortality rate of young children was very high, having a big family raised the odds that a few would survive to help with the workload. This practice was not born from insensitive men who had no care for their wives. It was a practical necessity, a fact of life.

Women in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries had little say or control over the size of their family. Nor did they always have access to knowledge that may have prevented pregnancy.
[Speaking about this subject was forbidden.] On the frontier, doctors were few and often unavailable. Complicated childbirths frequently ended in the mother’s death and sometimes the child died as well. It seems logical that a few of these women might have sought preventatives.

In my own historical romances, I did not come close to discussing a heroines’ interest in contraception until I wrote How to Fell a Timberman.  Even then it was a bare mention. My heroine’s friend who happens to be an ex-prostitute volunteers to explain avoiding pregnancy when she suspects the heroine has been indiscreet. Their conversation takes place off stage, not because it’s a touchy subject but because it was enough to know that contraception did exist. Also, an explanation would not have furthered the plot.

That doesn’t mean that I’m afraid of having this discussion in one of my future books if it’s relevant. Research indicates that Victorian woman were concerned about preventing pregnancy.

As a historical writer two questions come to mind:

  • Why have historical romance writers ignored the birth control issue for so long?
  • Why is information on historical contraception difficult to find?

Why have historical romance writers ignored the birth control issue for so long?

At one time, there was an unwritten rule: It is not romantic to write about contraception. In one sense, this is true. But there is nothing obscene about the subject at all, especially when compared to the strange fact that some of the very first historical romances, often termed bodice rippers, didn’t mind a rape scene. Now days, almost anything goes but rape!

Also, among some historical romance writers there was a misconception that “good girls” during the Colonial and Victorian era didn’t even think or ask about those things, so why would an author realistically write about them? For a long time, I was of this mindset. However, historical evidence of contraceptive devices and methods as well as journals have proven that women did think about and tried to practice methods of contraception.

And yet we seldom see any mentions of contraception in historicals.

In modern contemporary genres, writers are encouraged to make their heroes behave responsibly by using a condom. Readers are used to reading it. So, is having a historical male character use what passed for condoms in their day doable or even advised? The answer is yes and no and it depends.

In the past, most men used protection to prevent disease, not pregnancy. Also it was mainly the upper middle and upper classes that used contraception of any kind for two reasons. They were expensive and the lower classes lacked knowledge on the subject. Simply put, using contraception was not as common as it is today.

Note: Condoms went by other names like: sheaths, skins, shields etc.

Another reason romance writers may have ignored  the use of condoms even for disease prevention is because disease didn’t “seem” as prevalent in historical times as it is today. Also, we mostly write about virtuous women. But! The idea that there was less disease is a fallacy. It just wasn’t talked about like it is today.

After a deeper study especially into the history of wars around the world, you’ll learn about hundreds of soldiers far from home who contracted venereal disease from prostitutes/camp followers. This was a huge problem during own Civil War here in the United States and again during World War I and II.

But is it realistic for a historical romance writer to have a male character use protection or a female character to use contraception? It’s realistic in the sense that it is historically correct if not always common.  Perhaps the better question is, will historical readers accept it?

Before I became a writer, I once read a historical romance where a male character used protection when he visited a lady of the evening. At the time, I was so surprised that I immediately researched if that was possible. And of course it was. But as a reader, I wasn’t used to seeing it in a historical novel. It was a real show-stopper. Today, I don’t think it would it have the same affect on me but the verdict is still out on the general historical readership.                                                                                      reading-216862_640

After years of ignoring the issue, it’s difficult to include the idea of  contraception into our historical novels.  But I think it might be historcal writers that need to climb this hump more so than readers. If the story is well written, readers will accept and love it. After all, historical readers love history and most of them “know” their history.

Talking about contraceptives reminds me of a saying my mother often repeated to me and my sisters: “only good girls get into trouble.” As a teen I didn’t understand what she meant. If a good girl gets in trouble she isn’t good, right? Then I had an ah-hah moment. Good girl’s got in trouble because they didn’t “know” what bad girls knew. They didn’t know “how” to stay out of trouble! Most Victorian mothers explained the difference between good and bad but not even upon a daughter’s wedding, did they discuss contraception in any form.  [Again, the subject was forbidden.]

And yet, research reveals that whenever possible, even good women sought methods to prevent pregnancies or at least a way to space them further apart. It was just done in secrecy.

Which brings us to my second question.

Why is information on historical contraception difficult to find?

Courtesy of Pixabay

Courtesy of Pixabay

Hush hush!

As I’ve already said, women of the past considered speaking about such things obscene and forbidden, perhaps because many men saw contraception as unnatural. Some claimed it an unholy act against God. Sound familiar?


Because of the mores of the times, even journaling women did not dare to write that they were pregnant until the event produced a child. And then as you were reading — surprise! She suddenly wrote that a new little one joined the family.

Let’s also not forget, that whenever possible pregnant women stayed in seclusion. Showing your belly in public was not exactly de riguere. In the lower classes and esp. in the Old West some of these rules were of necessity relaxed, but even for a farmers wife, riding a buckboard on bumpy dirt roads from rural areas into the town general store was most likely not a frequent occurrence.

When pregnancy itself was so secluded, is it any wonder women seldom spoke of trying to “prevent” the event?

Due to the secrecy, it comes as no surprise that modern researchers had to literally read between the lines of journals.  In doing so they discovered that many of these women kept track of their menstrual cycles much like modern women do. Some actually wrote it down in a sort of code that researches figured out. These women had discovered that a rhythm method sometimes worked to space pregnancy or prevent them.

Another reason why historical information is difficult to come by is passage of the Comstock Laws of the 1870s and 1880s. These laws made dispensing information about contraception and abortion illegal. Advertisers of devices and methods did manage to skirt these laws with specialized language and terms.

In part II of Historical Contraception I’ll discuss the contraceptives themselves and how those who sold them advertised even though doing so was illegal.

I hope you enjoyed this discussion and I invite you to add your thoughts in comments.

Note: Please, no preaching on the morality of contraception and abortion. We all have our personal beliefs and this is not a forum to air them. Keep the discussion about historical facts or the reason why historical romance writers may or may not choose to refer to contraception in their books.

If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating subject, check the references below.

Domestic Technology A Chronology of Developments by Nell Du Vall This book has become rare and at the time of writing this blog, I found only a used copy on Amazon. But it is must for all historical writers as it depicts origins and stories behind most domestic inventions including food, planting, harvesting, livestock, tools, power sources, fuels, metals, writing, clocks, computers, Health and children, household medications, reproduction etc. It is a Bible for historical writers. Used copies start around $0.35 but I found one new book at Barnes & Noble for $168. (yes, it’s worth it.) and one like new for $70.37. You can also find copies at Google Books, Abebooks.com, OCLC WorldCat (a library)

Contraception and Abortion in 19th-Century America by Janet Farrell Brodie. At Google books where this link will take you, there is a full description. Also find it at textbooks.com, OCLC WorldCat – libraries, TheFreelibrary.com – online.

Birth Control Movement at Wikepedia This site provides leads to even more in depth information.

History of Condoms at Wikepedia

The Covert History of the American Condom

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14 Responses to Historical Contraception Part I

  1. I wonder if it was just about the time of the millennial switch that condoms became an essential part of descriptive sex scenes? It was about then that I discovered romance (yes, I was slow to catch on: I swallowed the “these books are junk” line for far too long) and I read a ton of it to see what it was like. Most of the books published before then never mentioned contraception in any way; virtually all of the books after–that went in for any level of specific description–had the compulsory condom bit.

    • sharla says:

      Beppie, I think your right about when the use of condoms in books was encouraged. It’s so common now that I’m surprised when I don’t see it a contemporary romance genre.

  2. Ella Quinn says:

    Really interesting. Thanks, Char! Shared

  3. Justine Covington says:

    In my senior year of college, I took a class in Women’s History and did a project on female contraception through the ages. It was incredibly difficult to find reliable information on contraception methods used during the last two-to-three centuries. I’m looking forward to your next installment, as I don’t remember much of what I researched 20 years ago!

    As for seeing contraception in historicals, I’ve seen it a few times, mostly reference/use of the sheath (made of lambskin) and it didn’t bump me out of the story. Actually relieved me a little bit that the gentleman who “sewed his oats” protected himself!

  4. sharla says:

    Thanks for stopping by Ella.

  5. sharla says:

    Justine, I’m glad to hear that the use of contraception didn’t bump you from the story. Maybe we’ll see a bit more it in the future.

    It is very difficult to find info on the subject but the two books I listed are excellent, the best I’ve seen yet. There is some info on the internet, but I always trust the print texts more. 🙂 There’s some conflicting info out there.

  6. Darleen says:

    Enjoyed this very much.
    I just finished a historical with withdrawal as the contraceptive method. I’ve read some where the mention of the condom (contemporary) was used so much that it did take me out of the story. I felt like the author was trying too hard to show responsibility on the couples part. For me, I don’t need to know about the condom every time they have sex. What does crack me up is when the condom is almost always supersized! 🙂

    • sharla says:

      LOL Darleen. I’ve read books where the author thought it necessary to tell us that the condom was the extra large size too. I agree, we don’t need that.

      I’m glad to hear though that some of you have read historicals lately where the hero does take some responsibility no matter how he does it. I think withdrawal was probably a lot more common than other methods.

  7. Great post!

    As an undergraduate, to cut my teeth on statistical data, I helped gather some data from the late 18th – early 19th century regarding premarital sex. All one need do is check out the marriage date and how many months later a full-term baby was born. No need to speculate when the baby is fine and born only four months after the couple is married.

    More of my undergraduate research included the statistics of venereal disease from the American Revolutionary War, the American Civil war, WWI, and WWII. Very interesting and sad statistics and often we forget when history talks about the casualties of war, they also refer to the deaths caused by some sexually transmitted diseases.

    And the use of contraceptions have been around for thousands of years. We don’t even know where the word condom comes from because it is so old. Although, people do like to speculate. Which leads me to say, check out academic journals, because there is plethora of what people did and didn’t do regarding contraceptions, how many women did know a great deal about sex before marriage–although some did remain in the dark, and many other interesting tidbits.

    By the way, I hadn’t read an historical romance novel until after I had already researched historical sex in different eras and different regions. I do feel my version of history is a tad different from some of the historical romance novels I’ve read. But we historians argue over history all the time. 😉

    • sharla says:

      So interesting Red. I hope you blog on some of this history as there is so little information available.

      I too was really surprised by deaths caused from venereal disease during the war and I’m betting some military doctors didn’t report all of it to spare the families.

      You made a good point about marriage dates and births too. Too often we tend to think women were really really virtuous in the old days because of the stigma attached to out-of-wedlock children. Perhaps they were just better at keeping secrets!

      It’s true that historical romance has virtually left the subject alone. I think there may be more writers now that are willing to confront it because our stories are more realistic then when historicals first took off in the 1980s. I guess we’ll see.

  8. Barbara Bettis says:

    What an interesting post! From what I’ve found in some research, herbs that helped prevent contraception were know of in early days, but the women who were proficient in herbal remedies weren’t always accepted in the society of the time. Often they were feared for having arcane knowledge that wasn’t accepted by the church. Some were even persecuted as witches. So herbal remedies weren’t always widely know or used. I’m looking forward to your next installment.

  9. sharla says:

    Thanks Barb. I think sometimes the herbs were used to abort an unwanted pregnancy too and that helped to give those who dispensed any herbal a bad name.

  10. Lyn Horner says:

    Excellent post on a topic we don’t often see discussed on blogs. I remember reading one historical romance years ago by a well known author who dared to mention condoms. I don’t recall what she called them, but that’s how I learned about male contraception in ages past. Amazing how much one can learn from our “trashy” romances, isn’t it.

    I’m looking forward to Part 2!

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Lyn I think the average person believes there was NO contraception before the 1900s, esp. the young people who really don’t study history. It’s difficult to learn anything because it was against the law to even advertise this information. In part II I will discuss how commerce overcame this problem.

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