Curious history of the condom
London - From linen and sheepskin to thick rubber sheaths that stank of sulphur, condoms haven’t always been the most comfortable form of contraception.
One of the world’s oldest forms of birth control, condoms weren’t widely used – much less accepted – until the 1940s, when the demand for fighting fit, syphilis-free soldiers changed the face of contraception forever.
In fact, so popular are they today, there’s even a Condom Awareness Week (in 2013, from February 10 to 16) and to celebrate, prophylactic makers Trojan have released a documentary that charts their often fascinating history.
Beginning with the earliest condoms in Ancient Egypt, the seven-minute film looks at how birth control evolved from a luxury into an everyday essential.
“The history of condoms is very complicated,” says Debra Lynn-Herbenick, research scientist and associate director at The Kinsey Institute.
“There are so many issues that have helped shape the way we feel about this one particular object.
“Some of the earliest examples of condom use occurred in ancient Egypt, where people used linen sheaths to cover their penis and protect themselves from STDs as well as to prevent pregnancy.”
Condoms next appeared in the 17th century, when a syphilis outbreak made them an essential tool, although the prophylactics in use then weren’t exactly the sort of thing you would want to use today.
“There’s documentation at least as early as the 17th century about the widespread use of animal skins,” says James Edmonson, chief curator at the Dittrick Medical History Center in the US.
“Today, we use the same animal skins to make sausage casings.”
Uncomfortable though the animal skin condoms were, they were hugely popular among the middle- and upper-classes, but remained out of reach for the rest.
“It might have cost a working person a week’s wage to buy a quality condom at the time,” says Edmonson.
“The big innovation came in 1839 when Charles Goodyear found he could vulcanise or heat-treat rubber.”
Cheaper the new rubber condoms might have been but comfortable they were not, as Lynn-Herbenick points out.
“Condoms in the 1850s were as thick as bicycle tyres and they smelled of sulphur. They weren’t exactly inviting.”
Nevertheless, condoms grew in popularity, and by the 1850s they could be purchased by mail order and sent to your home.
But the backlash was about to begin, particularly in the US, where the 1873 Comstock laws effectively outlawed contraception.
The new rules prevented advertising or sending condoms by post, while 30 different states outlawed the manufacturing and sale of condoms altogether.
As a result disease increased. “Condoms were effectively forced underground and you couldn’t get them in the way you could before,” says Lynn-Herbenick.
“After Comstock, when you couldn’t use condoms, the rate of STDs skyrocketed.”
It wasn’t until the outbreak of World War I that condoms staged a comeback – mainly in response to the high rate of venereal disease that incapacitated as much as 15 percent of Allied forces at any one time.
But most condoms were still expensive and uncomfortable, and it was another two years before modern latex condoms were invented – too late for soldiers serving on the Western Front.
The new material did, however, make a difference to troops fighting in World War II when, for the first time, condoms were widely distributed by military authorities.
“By World War II, condoms were really the main way of preventing venereal disease,” says Lynn-Herbenick.
“It made no sense to leave soldiers vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea.”
Widespread wartime use of condoms finally gained them acceptance among wider society, and by the mid-1950s it is estimated that 60 percent of British couples were using them regularly.
But it was the sexual revolution of the 1960s that would finally cement their place in Western culture.
“The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s meant that a lot of people were having sex with people they didn’t know very well,” says Lynn-Herbenick.
“It changed the need for sexual protection and meant that the condom took centre stage in (Western) culture – particularly for younger people.”
Condoms became more important than ever when, in the 1980s, the HIV/Aids epidemic arrived.
“In the early 80s, we found out we had a new public heath problem – HIV/Aids,” says Lynn Barclay, chief executive of the American Social Health Association.
“Condoms became the difference between life and death. The public health response to HIV and Aids has meant that condoms are more widely available than ever before.”
Rapid innovation changed the face of condom use in the 1990s and made them more comfortable and easy to use.
Although the latex prophylactics have to compete with a wide variety of birth control methods today, they remain among the most popular and are still the only fail-safe way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.
“Condoms were once a one-size-fits-all kind of object but now they come in various shapes, sizes and colours,” says Lynn-Herbenick.
“When someone goes to the condom aisle of a store, they’re faced with a number of choices that lets them tweak sex in any way they want to tweak it.” – Daily Mail
Condoms through the ages: key dates you need to know
13 000 BC: The oldest known depiction of a condom is in a painting on the walls of the Grotte des Combarelles, a cave in France. The paintings are believed to be between 10 000 and 15 000 years old.
150 AD: Condoms appear in the legend of Minos, written down by Antoninus Liberalis in 150 AD. According to historians, this suggests that condom use was widespread during antiquity.
1494: An outbreak of syphilis decimates the population of Europe, before spreading to Asia where the disease devastated the Chinese people in 1505. Outbreaks such as this were in part due to the rise of modern religions such as Christianity and Islam, which forbade the use of birth control.
1564: Italian doctor Gabriele Falloppio publishes De Morbo Gallico (The French Disease), which was the first medical treatise to suggest the use of condoms as a means of tackling syphilis.
1666: The English Birth Rate Commission ascribes falling birth rates to the use of “condons” – the first recorded use of the word.
1640: Condoms made from animal intestines have been discovered, dating from the English Civil War. The prophylactics, found in a toilet, were believed to have been used by the troops of King Charles I – mainly on each other.
1708: By the 18th century, condom use had become widespread.
1840: Although uncomfortably thick, condoms had become affordable for all and were widely promoted to the working classes – all thanks to the discovery of rubber.
1870: The first major condom manufacturer, E Lambert and Son of Dalston, opens its doors in London.
1912: German entrepreneur Julius Fromm invents a new and speedy way of making condoms called “cement dipping”, which involved adding petrol to rubber to make it liquid before dripping it over a glass mould. Fromm was also the first to make branded condoms.
1914: The German military becomes the first to promote condom use among troops. By the time World War I broke out in 1914, all countries, except the UK and the US, handed out condoms to their soldiers. As a result, by the end of the war, the US army had been forced to deal with nearly 400 000 cases of STDs.
1920: Latex is invented, revolutionising the condom in the process. Youngs Rubber Company was the first to manufacture a latex condom, which was sold under the Trojan brand.
1932: The London Rubber Company becomes the first European company to make latex condoms, which it sells under the trade name Durex.
1941: Germany outlaws civilian use of condoms and directs the country’s entire supply to the military. All combatant nations in World War II provided their soldiers with vast quantities of prophylactics.
1955: After the war, condom use became widespread, with 60 percent of married British couples and 42 percent of American pairings regularly using them.
1967: France repeals its birth control laws, followed by Italy in 1971. The last country to get rid of anti-condom laws was the Republic of Ireland, which did so in 1993.
1981: The Aids epidemic begins, leading to widespread public health campaigns in Western countries between 1985 and 1987. As a result, condom use skyrockets.
1994: Condom sales begin to decline slightly as the fear of Aids diminishes in the West. Nevertheless, globally condom use continues to grow, with experts predicting that 18.6 billion will be used every year by 2015.