Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Condom: A brief history

In the absence of artefacts, the origins of contraception can only be deduced from the myths of ancient Greece. King Minos of Crete, was described as having "serpents and scorpions" in his semen, which killed his mistresses. To protect his wife, Pasiphae, many believe she wore a vaginal prophylaxis in the form of a goat's bladder during intercourse. Others up hold, the goat's bladder was worn as a penal sheath by Minos. No one can be sure but it is reasonable to infer during the Bronze Age (circa 3000BC) safe sex was practiced.

By the time of the ancient Egyptians(circa 1000 C.E), safe sex involved a penis glans cap made of linen. These were worn during intercouse to prevent the spread of Schistosomiasis (or snail fever). These caps were dyed in different colours to distinguish social status and sometimes worn during ceremonial occasions.

The Ancient Romans were aware of venereal diseases and women used tampons of goat bladders dipped in herbs to protect themselves. Roman soldiers wrapped their penis with linen or animal (sheep or goat) intestines and bladders, to act as a prophylaxis.

In the Orient, Chinese men used silk paper applied with an oil lubrication around the penis. The Japanese used leather or Kabuta-Gata (tortoiseshell) to cover the glans. The Kabuta-Gata could also be used as a supplement to those who suffered from erectile dysfunction. Glans covers became more prevalent as disease and plague spread through the East from Central Europe.

By the beginning of the 16th century the European continent was devastated with a syphilis epidemic which spread from Spain through France to Italy then on to Russia, India, China, and Africa. Initially physicians were left helpless and refused to treat the suffering, leaving them to barbers, bath attendants and quacks (many of which were corn cutters). The presence of the pox and the knowledge of its transmission gave good reason to influence sexual practice. Gabriel Fallopius (1523-1562) was professor of anatomy at Padua University, and keen to reduce the incidence of sexually transmitted disease during the Syphilis epidemic. In his book De Moro Gallico (The French Disease*), posthumously published in 1564, he described a linen bag drenched in a saline solution or herbs, and worn under the prepuce (foreskin), to cover the glans. The sheath was lubricated with saliva and tied to the shaft of the penis with a ribbon. In 1533 he experimented on 1100 men and demonstrated the sheath protected all from contracting the disease. Butchers started making penile sheaths from lamb and goat intestines.
*During this time, waring countries, mockingly called the STD epidemic after their enemies. Hence the French referred to it as the English Disease, and vice versa. The new penile sheaths were called, Redingote Anglaise or English raincoat: and the English responded with French Letters.

br> During the English Civil War (1642–1651), the forces of King Charles I (1600 - 1649 ) were vulnerable to syphilis and were issued with penile sheaths made of fish or the intestines of cattle, and sheep . By the mid 17th centry penile sheaths were in general use in Europe. They were often made made from goldbeater's skin i.e. membranes made from the intestine of cattle which goldsmiths placed between squares of gold ribbon. The use of condoms as a contraceptive was well documented and the fertility rate in England significantly reduced. Up until this time, the Church had paid scant attention to family planning but Leonardus Lessius (1554 -1623 ) , a Jesuit moral theologian, declared the use of sheaths a sin, and unethical.

It would appear condoms went without a name well into the 18th century. A physician to Louis XV (1710 – 1774), mentioned the penile sheath in a book published in 1736, then again in 1770, but the prophylaxis, although described clearly, went unnamed. According to his memoirs, Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798) was cognicent of birth control methods but reluctant, as a young man, to use dead animal skin. Later, when improvements came with sheaths made from fish or isinglass gelatin, he understood safe sex and became a devotee. As a further precaution, Casanova inflated the sheath to test for any leaks, prior to use. Other libertines like, Marques de Sade (1740 – 1814), were aware of the contraceptive effect of the penile sheath.

Daniel Turner (1667-1740) was a surgeon and practised physician. He had a great interest in syphilis, and skin disease and wrote extensively on the subjects. He was however a crude man whose writings were sometimes ignored. Turner however, is recognised as being the first person to use the word “Condom,” which appearance in his diaries. Later ‘condom’ was incorporated into a dictionary of London street language in 1785. The veneration of the word “Condom” was responsible for its subsequent popularity and brothels sold them to customers before they had relations with their sex workers.

The etymology of the word condom has baffler historians and Onomastics , alike. It was alledged, Charles II (1630-1685), charged his physician, a Dr Conton or Condom; to help him stem his illegitimate offspring. However according to Havlock Ellis (1859 – 1939), in Studies in the Psychology of Sex v6: Human Sexuality , there is no evidence a physician by that name ever existed. Nor is there evidence to support the alternative theory prophylactics were originally called gondoms, said to be the invention of a Cavalier Colonel Gondum (or Quindum). No evidence exists. Some believe the moniker came from the Frech town Condom-en-Armagnac, but once again there is no evidence to support the claim. Linguist suggest the origins may be from the Latin word “condus,” which means to store in a container, and/or the Persian word “kemdu,” which refers to a long piece of intestine used for storage.

Condoms started to be sold wholesale in the late 18th century, and were sold in specialty shops in the towns and cities. Traveling peddlers also sold condoms among their wares in this country. Condoms continued to be made of lambs’ and goats’ gut with linen and silk condoms an exotic option. Army officers frequently had their condoms decorated with the regimental colours.

18th century Dutch colonisers found the Ndyuka people from Guiana, had been using female contraception in the form of a vaginal sheath made from a specific plant. The chalice shaped sheath, open on one end and closed on the other was described as six inches long, and inserted into the vagina before intercourse. Pressure exerted by the muscular walls of the vagina helped keep the sheath in a fixed position.

By the 1800s, use of condoms became progressively more common, beginning in the wealthier classes and spreading to the rural and lower classes. Still made of lamb, goat or sheep intestine, these could be washed and used again to make the product more accessible to working people. Ribbons or ties were colour-coded to denote different lengths and were available in 3 grades: regular, fine, and superfine. Condoms were used in the main to prevent the spread of disease. .

After, Charles Goodyear discovered a way of vulcanization of rubber, in 1839, new rubber condoms could stretch without tearing easily. By the 1860s, rubber condoms were made to size and massed produced. They were heavy with a seam which made them less comfortable but they could be bought in different sizes. By 1865, the spread of venereal diseases across society was a growing concern but the Cornstock laws (1873) in the United States, prohibited the vending of condoms via post, and the laws prevented the public advertising of contraception. By the end of the century the diffusion of contraception was cited as the cause of the slow decline in illegitimacy rates. The Church however, condemned the use of condoms for contraception, but the medical profession took a less hostile view due to their health function.

German inventor, Julius Fromm (1883 –1945), invented a cement dipping method for making thin, durable and seamless condoms in 1912. He patented his invention in 1916, and went into mass production in 1922. The introduction of latex made condoms cheaper and disposable and Germany saw their first brand of condoms called Fromm's Act.

In World War I (1914 -18), brothels, along with cafes and bars, provided men with an escape from the slaughter and filth of the trenches. They were bright and warm, light and jovial. And large or small, intimate or formal, they always had plenty of women to choose from. Young soldiers had money to spend and knew that they stood a good chance of being killed within a few weeks and did not want to die virgins. Such behaviour was condoned, understood and accepted. Sexually transmitted diseases spread rapidly and the majority of condoms were still made of "skin": chemically treated intestine or bladder. Heavy duty rubber condoms were also available but less popular. The German army were quickly issued condoms, but only after the allies found their servicemen caught syphilis and gonorrhea were they issued with heavy duty rubber condoms.

Latex was invented in the 1920s, and it revolutionised the condom industry. Latex prophylaics were flexible with very high tensile strength and could be lubricated with spermicide. By Wold War II, latex condoms were mass produced and given to troops all over the world.

Although condoms played a vital role in the 1960’s and 70’s in protection from sexually transmitted diseases, the main use remained for contraception purposes. The advent of the oral contraceptive pill in the early 60s saw an overall drop in worldwide sales of condoms. The discovery of HIV and AIDS as a sexually transmitted disease in the 1980s, once again saw the benefits of safe sex using condoms. The global condom industry has been forecast to have a market value of US $5.4 billion by 2018.

Further reading
History of Contraception Museum The small museum showcases almost every kind of contraceptive device ever dreamed up over many centuries.

Reviewed 12/02/2017

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