Condoms Through The Ages

Posted on 2014.08.13

The Birth of Birth Control

Condoms have been a device for sexual health for many centuries, and their ability to stir up controversy has existed for just as long. Even though their use can be dated as far back as 1642, there are still people today that are condom detractors.

There are some references to condom use before the 15th century, but it wasn’t until a massive outbreak of syphilis ravaged French troops in 1494 that condom development became serious. The syphilis outbreak traveled across Europe and into Asia, killing large numbers of people in China by 1505.

An Italian doctor is credited with authoring the first uncontested account of condom use. Gabriele Falloppio wrote “De Morbo Gallico” (The French Disease – a reference to syphilis) and it was published in 1564. In it he describes using linen cases treated with a chemical solution to cover the penis to protect against syphilis. Falloppio took credit for inventing this method of protection and said he performed a trial of the linen condom on 1100 subjects with a 100% success rate. None of the men contracted syphilis and the use of condoms as a form of STD protection was born.

Renaissance Safer Sex Practices

In early times, condoms were made from everything from silk paper to animal horns. During the Renaissance, using linens and intestines became more predominant and by the 18th century written documentation about condom use became common. However, with more documentation came more attention and naysayers became vocal. In the 1700s some medical professionals spoke out about the condoms effectiveness on the grounds that they weren’t a complete barrier from STDs and that contraception is immoral. This didn’t stop the rise of condom popularity and soon different sizes were available for sale at pharmacies, barbershops, and even the theatre. The memoirs of Casanova are the first recorded documentation of condom quality inspection – Casanova would blow them up to test for holes before he used them.

The early 19th century saw a rise in condom use among poorer classes. Before this time, condoms were used mostly by upper and middle class citizens largely due to the lack of education on safe sex practices amongst poorer people as well as the costliness of being able to use protection. However, by the 1850s reusable rubber condoms were available on the market creating an economical option. Latex condoms wouldn’t be invented until the 1920s, so rubber condoms were the method of choice for most people since buying condoms made of animal skin was expensive. The slang term “rubbers” comes from this time based on the main ingredient in the common condom.

The Industrial Age

Through out the condom’s industrial transformation, there have been detractors fighting it the entire way. Laws and campaigns set up mostly by people and organizations that believe contraception to be immoral or that offering protection will increase the likelihood of promiscuity. In 1837 America the Comstock Law was passed, banning people from sending information about contraception through the mail as well as the sale and manufacturing of condoms in 30 states.

Contraception was also illegal in Italy and Germany in the 19th century, but condoms were pardoned if they were used for protection from STDs. In the Republic of Ireland the manufacturing and sale of condoms was illegal until the 1970s. Despite moral and legal barriers condom use continued to grow throughout the world and by the 1930s condoms were issued to all members of the American military.

The Modern Era of Condoms

The discovery of AIDS in the 1980s changed history and the use, sale, and advertising of condoms forever. When it was suggested that AIDS was sexually transmitted condom promotion programs and major advertising campaigns swept across America and Europe, driving up the sales of condoms. By the 1990s condoms were the second most popular form of protection for single women, and third for couples in the United States. Condom sales were on the rise until the media attention to AIDS abated in the early 1990s. Even though some organizations, like the Roman Catholic Church, have never changed their anti-condom stance, the education and advertising of condom use during the AIDS epidemic altered the perception of safe sex and with it the adoption of condoms  as a staple in a healthy sexual relationship.


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