Cultural Mores, Devices and Methods
A disclaimer here: This blog like part I is a historical view of contraception and abortion and does not reflect any personal views for or against contraception and abortion. Links are provided for historical purposes only.
Below, I include a few direct notes and tips to writers in green.
Contraception has been practiced since recorded history. By modern standards some of the methods were OMG disgusting, ridiculous, scary and dangerous! A few methods did work and you may surprised at what was available back in the day.
If you’re new to historical fiction I offer a caution on using exact dates. I love history and research, but I’ve learned that resources do not always agree. I try to find three resources that do agree. When that’s not possible and “for the purposes of writing,” I play it safe. I usually take the latest given date as the correct one. On top of that, I allow a five to ten-year period after the invention date before I use a fact in a story, allowing time for the product or practice to join the ranks of “common use.” But that’s just me. Every writer has their own set of rules. Once in a while it might be okay to fudge a year or two but explain to the reader what you’ve done. Historical readers know their history as well as you do!
Below I list several time periods but one thing that has been common throughout the history of contraception is that men believed birth control, provided they even believed in the practice should be the woman’s responsibility.
2700 BC the I Ching – use of quicksilver as an oral contraceptive and Chinese prostitutes drank lead for the same purpose.
By 1100 B. C. — Chinese philosophers recommended women control their passions and think of other things at the time of the male ejaculation.
Around 1850 B.C. — Egyptians favored mixture of dung and honey in the vagina. Indian women used feathers. Persian women used sponges.
100 A. D. — Sonranus of Ephesus, a Greek, described contraceptive methods that European doctors used until the 17th century.
500 AD – Aetius, a Greek physician suggested inserting half a pomegranate into the vagina to catch semen.
Cultural Mores: Although convictions were rare, in Colonial America a few women were executed for committing infanticide/abortion. Puritans condemned birth prevention and it was seldom discussed.
To prevent pregnancy, Colonials mostly used: coitus interruptus/withdrawal, abortion and breastfeeding – none totally reliable.
1701 – The 1st mention of a contraceptive sheath or condom is referenced by William Burnaby in his Play, The ladies Visiting Day.
If unwanted pregnancy occurred herbals were sometimes used in an attempt to abort. Certain species were known to “bring on the menstrual cycle.” [Code for abortion] The term abortion would not have been used and instead the purpose was disguised by saying the herbs brought on the menstrual cycle, or returned a female to healthy regularity.
They say history repeats itself and the history of contraception is no exception especially in the political and social realms. As you read further, I think you will agree.
1820s – first medical reference of the vaginal douche called female syringes
1826 – Early birth control manual, Richard Carlile’s Every Woman’s Book, published in London.
1838 – First vaginal cap or pessary developed by Friedrich Wilde of Berlin
Mid 1800s – Spermicides and astringents sold
1855 – The first rubber condom [some list this date as 1845; it varies.[see more below]
1881 – Dr. Aletta Jacobs of Amsterdam, recommended the diaphragm as birth control device – flexible disk that covered the cervix.
1883 – William Rothacker described a soft rubber diaphragm sold by agents and druggists, calling it a French Pessaire Preventif
First off, you should understand that by the late 19th century husbands and wives expressed discontent about unchecked pregnancies more openly.
In spite of all the hush hush and taboos on the subject, the nineteenth century saw a decrease in fertility in the Western world, which may indicate that people practiced contraception.
So why was it such a big secret?
I could simply answer this by saying “nice” women didn’t talk about these things in any kind of company. And it’s true, mostly they didn’t. But add to this the possibility of being tossed into jail and having your reputation forever ruined and you can understand why few conversations dared to happen even between a wife and husband. Some husband’s actually committed their wives to asylums for trying to prevent pregnancy. And then of course there were the Comstock laws.
The Comstock laws, mentioned in Part of I of this blog, Contraception – The History And It’s Place In Historical Romance, made dispensing information about contraception and abortion illegal. Other laws were passed in various cities and states to make it possible for offenders to be arrested.
BUT! Where there’s money to be made, commerce is not about to deny a demand. Entrepreneurs overcame the obstacles of social mores and laws by advertising the contraband with the use of clever if wordy idioms that became code for devices and methods.
Instead of the term “birth control” which wasn’t used until the twentieth century, Victorians used some of the following:
- The prevention of conception
- The prevention of pregnancy
- The limitation of offspring
Those who opposed birth control used terms like:
- Evasions of nature’s laws
- Crimes without names
- Conjugal frauds
- Marital masturbation
- Obstacles to fecundation
- Artificial methods of preventing fecundation
Opponents of procured miscarriage called it:
- Criminal abortion
- Deliberate abortion
- Antenatal infanticide
- Antenatal murder
Sympathetic terms for abortion were:
- Menstrual regulation
- Ridding oneself of an obstruction
- Return to female healthy regulation
Herbs used in the 1800s to abort might be called:
- Ladies relief
- Cure irregularities
More On Methods, Devices and Dates
Herbals have been used to abort pregnancies throughout time.
Pennyroyal is one of the most often mentioned birth control herbals. It is a variety of mint and was even used by American Indians. [Another name for it was squaw mint]. Some other Indian herbals were: black cohosh, black snakeroot and squawroot. I am not certain if squawroot and squaw mint are one in the same.
Many herbals were actually poisons but sadly, some desperate women believed if they got sick enough they would abort an unwanted pregnancy.
Often immigrants brought family recipes to prevent conception or abort from Europe. Due to the sensitive subject, they were hidden inside Bibles and furniture cubbyholes.
Early forms of the modern diaphragm or pessarie were often known by: womb veils, female preventatives, female protectors, victoria’s protectors, the French pessary, Pessaire Preventif or simply F.P.
1850 to 1885: About 26 kinds of vaginal caps or pessaries were patented in the US [1st developed 1838.] It was sometimes advised that a sponge be soaked in a spermicide or contraceptive astringent. Soluble pessaires or ointments, gels suppositories that dissolved inside the female were also used. By the late century, these were quietly sold by by druggists and mail orders.
Another common birth control method was the vaginal douche. [See date above]
In the 1840s a douche was sometimes called: irrigators or injections, female syringes and water cure. They became more common in the 1850s and 60s. Sometimes a spermicide was used or weak carbolic acid, vinegar, baking soda and vegetable astringents. Many of these were recommended for infections and menstrual irregularities [code for pregnancy] [See more information about homemade recipes even used on the wagon train trails in Contraception and Abortion in 19th-Century America by Janet Farrell Brodie.]
The douche was employed mostly by middle and upper class women. The lower classes may have been discouraged from the practice because of lack of privacy in crowded homes and having to use outdoor bathrooms [think cold winter nights].
A variety of douche choices were available from physicians, itinerant peddlers from mid century. By 1885 some pharmacists carried a variety of douche choices. [Keep in mind these were “quietly” sold.
Many douche aids, including plain water failed and may have even aided conception by helping sperm reach the cervix sooner. Some astringents may have worked by changing the alkalinity of the vagina. Sometimes a precoital douche was recommended and in some cases may have helped, again by altering the PH of the vagina.
Spermicides and contraceptive astringents were sold in different forms as vaginal suppositories by mid 1800s. [They were advertised using the code words.]
The idea of rhythm methods or safe periods were introduced in the 1840s and 50s but they weren’t the same method that was practiced in the 20th century. It was called by the euphemisms “the agenetic period, periodic continence, the physiological rue of abstinence, certain intervals, the laws which regulate the female system and the sterile period.” Much of the timing information was incorrect and in reverse of what we now know.
Most couples used withdrawal more than any other types of contraception, but many also used the French method or condoms. Some preferred condoms because they thought that early withdrawal caused illness for the male and sometimes the woman too. This seems silly in our modern times but remember early medicine was often based on superstition and old wives tales.
Condoms made from animal skins were in common use by the 1700s and were known as sheaths. The word condom was adopted from the earl of Condom, personal physician Charles II, who recommended the use of sheep’s gut to Charles to reduce the likelihood of contracting syphilis.
Rubber Condoms – [See dates above] With the invention of vulcanized rubber, rubber condoms were soon on the market. The first rubber condoms were reusable but because of a sensitivity issue, skin condoms remained more popular. Also the rubber quality was iffy. For writing purposes, all resources seem to agree that many types of capotes including rubbers were available from druggist in the early 1870s. [Again sold quietly]
Latex Condoms – Latex was invented in 1920. The first automated latex condom production was in 1930. Again, some disagree on the latex invention date but the 1930 manufacturing date seems solid.
Some women believed nursing prevented pregnancy. This did work to a certain extent but not for long, depending on when the mother’s menstruation returned and substitute foods were added to the child’s diet.
There was no precise terminology for birth control before Margaret Sanger, a nurse who witnessed what the toll of many births did to her mother and other American women. She was the first to use the label birth control in the early twentieth century. [She lived long enough to see the birth control pill legalized]
1916 – Margaret Sanger opened a birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, NY followed by Dr. Maire Stopes of London, in 1921. Sanger’s clinic was closed by authorities soon after opening, but the publicity and resulting trial changed attitudes and enable doctors to prescribe birth-control methods in certain circumstances without violating the law.
1928 -The interuterine device (IUD) was originally used by Arab camel drivers to prevent pregnancies in female camels. Not until 1928 did Ernst Frafenberg, a German Physician devised the first scientific metal coil for use by women.
In the 1980s IUDs were linked to diseases causing infertility, esp the Dalkon Shield.
Also in 1928 – The modern rhythm method of birth control was devised by Dr. Harmann Knause, in Berlin. This time they got it right!
1960 – The contraceptive pill became commercial. It was produced in 1951 and the first oral contraceptive tests were in 1954.
1986 – A morning after pill was tested by Dr. Beatrice Courzinet and Dr. Gilbert Schaison in Paris.
There is so much information on this subject that it is impossible to include it all in a simple blog. I hope that if you decide to include anything about contraception in one of your historicals, that this blog will at least point you in the right direction. Beware of the many websites that claim all sorts of dates etc. I was shocked by so much conflicting information. There are some legitimate medical sites with small histories and I tend to trust those or text books by historians. Wikipedia in this case was pretty good.
By the way, I checked out the Earl of Condom because this bit of information appeared to be just too convenient. Turns out, he did exist and was physician to King Charles II in the 1600s. True life is often stranger than fiction.