All About the Wild and Woolly History of the Condom

Some five billion of them quietly find their way into people’s wallets and bedside drawers every year. The Marquis de Sade wrote about them. Sigmund Freud did not like them but believed they were superior to coitus interruptus. Jane Austen recommended couples sleep in separate beds, instead.

They’ve been called the wetsuit, the rubber, the jimmy, and even the nightcap. Whatever name you might choose, the condom often gets a bad rap for being an inconvenient wrap these days.

Men frequently complain of discomfort, reduced sensation and a poor fit. In the US, only 1 in 3 sexually-active males use them.

In studies, some men have grumbled that “condoms tend to slip off,” says Ron Frezieres, a vice president for research and evaluation at the non-profit Essential Access Health.

Sometimes, too, larger condoms feel tight because “shorter men had a big roll of latex at the base of the penis,” says Frezieries.

But the condoms of bygone eras were even less comfortable – and far less effective – than that trusty glow-in-the-dark latex condom in your wallet.  

Both men and women went through a long process of experimenting with all manner of strange things as prophylactics before settling for the condom’s current iterations.

In studies, some men have grumbled that condoms tend to slip off.
In studies, some men have grumbled that condoms tend to slip off.

The Birth of Birth Control

Where the word ‘condom’ came from, no one knows. The term could have come from a town in France. Some have speculated that it originated in the Latin language. But there is no real agreement on the word’s etymology.

One popular theory is that the condom may have been named after a physician to King Charles II, a certain Colonel Condom. The colonel is said to have fashioned a device to prevent the birth of even more of the king’s illegitimate children.

Depending on how you understand prehistoric art, the first known use of a condom may have been around 11,000 B.C. in France. A painting on a cave wall depicts a man and woman having sex, and the man appears to be wearing some sort of animal skin for protection.

There is no real agreement on the etymology of the word ‘condom.’
There is no real agreement on the etymology of the word ‘condom.’

Tortoiseshells, Serpents, and Scorpions

Historians and archeologists debate whether ancient peoples used condoms. Societies in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome preferred small families and are known to have practiced a variety of birth control methods.

The writings of these societies contain obscure references to male-controlled contraceptive methods that might have been condoms. But most historians interpret them as referring to coitus interruptus or anal intercourse.

Lead and Mercury?

Centuries ago, Chinese women drank lead and mercury to control fertility, which often resulted in sterility or death. In ancient Japan, men used a sheath made of tortoiseshell to cover the tip of the penis. Later on, Chinese men learned to fashion condoms out of oiled paper or lamb intestines.

Greek mythology tells of Minos having “serpents and scorpions” in his semen and using goat’s bladder to protect his wife during intercourse.

The ancient Romans would have continued to use animal bladders and intestines as contraceptives. But by the end of the Roman empire, any documentation of intelligent contraceptive use largely disappeared.

Greek mythology tells of Minos protecting his wife Pasiphae from the “serpents and scorpions” in his semen using a condom made out of goat’s bladder.
Greek mythology tells of Minos protecting his wife Pasiphae (above) from the “serpents and scorpions” in his semen using a condom made out of goat’s bladder.

Weasel Testicles and the Great Pox

During the Middle Ages, in Europe, magicians and quacks advised women to wear weasel testicles on their thighs or to hang the animal’s amputated foot around their necks. Other preventive amulets of the time were wreaths of herbs, desiccated cat livers, or bones from black cats.

People in Medieval Europe also used flax lint tied in a cloth and soaked in menstrual blood, or – yes, our personal favorite – even the anus of a hare.

Condoms only began to appear again in Europe in the 16th century, at the height of a vicious syphilis epidemic.

The “grande verole,” or “great pox,” didn’t have the horrific mortality of the bubonic plague, but its symptoms were painful and repulsive.

Disease-stricken patients experienced genital sores, followed by foul abscesses and ulcers over the rest of the body as well as severe pains. 

The remedies were few and hardly effective. The mercury inunctions that syphilitics endured were painful and many patients died of mercury poisoning.

During the Middle Ages, in Europe, magicians and quacks advised women to wear weasel testicles around their thighs as a contraceptive.
During the Middle Ages, in Europe, magicians and quacks advised women to wear weasel testicles around their thighs as a contraceptive.

An Unsavory Reputation

It was the Italian priest and anatomist, Gabriele Falloppio, the namesake behind Fallopian tubes, who introduced a more advanced version of the condom to help combat the outbreak.

In a treatise on syphilis published in 1564, two years after his death, Fallopio described his experiments with a linen condom tied with a bow. Butchers during the time also fashioned condoms from lamb and goat intestines.

Sspermatozoa and ‘The Church’!

The discovery of spermatozoa in the 17th century created controversy over all these devices. The Church became outraged over the use of any barriers impeding the cell’s reproductive function. In 1605, the Jesuit theologian, Leonardus Lessius, declared the use of condoms immoral

By the 18th century, the condom had gained an unsavory reputation as an implement suitable only for philanderers, prostitutes and the immoral.

Still, the popularity of animal skin condoms among the middle and upper classes grew steadily and rapidly. Condoms were even sold in pubs, theatres and barber shops in Europe.

The popularity of animal skin condoms among the middle and upper classes grew steadily and rapidly in the 18th century.

Rubber Condoms and Advocacy

Charles Goodyear invented rubber vulcanization in 1839. By the 1860s manufacturers in Europe were mass-producing rubber condoms. Skin condoms were still more popular, though, as they were cheaper.

Then, too, early rubber condoms only covered the tip of the penis and had the unfortunate tendency to fall off at the most inconvenient moments.

This meant that gentlemen who wanted a truly effective condom had to endure the awkwardness of having to seek out a custom fitting.

Condom advocacy was in full swing by the early 1900s.
Condom advocacy was in full swing by the early 1900s.

While it might sound funny now, no Victorian lothario could have enjoyed the experience of having a stranger take close and exact measurements of his penis.

The mass production of rubber condoms was also a rather dangerous business. Manufacturers used gasoline and benzene to suspend the rubber, making the production process a fire hazard.

The middle of the 19th century nevertheless began to see condoms advertised in newspapers like The New York Times. This stage in the condom’s evolution also marked the beginning of advocacy.

Supportive organizations dispersed groups that went into Europe’s poorer neighborhoods to distribute literature with instructions on how to use the contraceptive.

The Condom Comes of Age

The most consequential technological advance in the development of the condom came in 1920 following the invention of latex. This made condoms essentially a “one-size-fits-all” – or mostly all – device.

With the newly-invented latex prophylactic, manufacturers could also use water to suspend the condom. This reduced both the cost of production and the chances of factory fires. Condom sales almost immediately doubled.

The condom market again saw another massive jump in sales in 1957, when Durex invented the lubricated condom. The innovation prompted 42 percent of sexually active people to use condoms between the years 1955 and 1965.

Today, people are still trying to improve the condom, but progress has been slow. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sought ideas for more pleasurable condoms in 2013. So far, none has been brought to market.

Some of the attempts at improvement have been downright bewildering.

The condom market again saw another massive jump in sales in 1957, when Durex invented the lubricated condom.
The condom market again saw another massive jump in sales in 1957, when Durex invented the lubricated condom.

The Galactic Cap is a polyurethane condom that covers only the tip of the penis and attaches with medical adhesive. This new condom hasn’t been tested nearly enough, but Charles Powell, its California inventor, nonetheless sells it for $20, “flying under the F.D.A. radar.”

“If they do come after me, I’m going to move my operation across the border into Mexico,” Powell told the New York Times.

The inventor says his creation allows more sensation because more skin is uncovered. He admits, however, that the Galactic Cap won’t necessarily protect against sexually transmitted diseases.

The product has also prompted complaints that its Band-Aid-like adhesive makes it “painful coming off.”

Now, aren’t you glad you got latex condoms, instead?

What’s your story? Are you as condom fan or a condom failure? Why not share your experiences by reviewing this article via the review box below?


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