When people think of birth control, they often think of the modern pill. But there are many types of contraception, and they’ve been around for a very long time.
According to National Geographic Society, people have been trying to control reproduction literally as long as there have been human societies. “Sponges have been used for thousands of years,” said Irene Linda Gordon, author of Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: Birth Control In America. When placed over the cervix, these are “actually fairly effective as a natural form of contraception” because “they absorb semen.”
Condoms, too, are a traditional form of birth control. They’ve been around for hundreds of years—before the 19th century rubber boom, most were made of animal skin or intestines. And spermicide isn’t a recent innovation. Lemon juice and other acidic substances were tried long before modern spermicides landed in condoms. For extra protection, ancient people would rub a mixture of lemon juice and honey on a contraceptive sponge.
These methods weren’t as safe and effective as modern ones—many early versions of intrauterine devices (IUDs) were terribly uncomfortable or caused infections—but the fact that people pursued them shows how strong their desire was for birth control. Throughout history, people have used these and other methods regardless of whether their church or state has given approval. The same holds true today.
Roman, 200 BCE-400 – CE Bronze pessary. A pessary in this context is a way of blocking the cervix. The gap allows a rod to be placed into the cervix to hold the pessary in place. While it could remain in place during intercourse, such intercourse could be painful.
c. 1754 – An engraving of Jean-Jacques Casanova (1725 – 1798) (left), an italian seducer and adventurer, here blowing up a condom.
c. 1880 – This type of gold wishbone stem pessary is an intra-cervical device (IUC). These tools came into use as a contraceptive towards the end of the 1800s. The flat end of the stem pessary sat against the vaginal wall with a stem protruding into the uterus through the cervix. An IUC works after conception. It stops a newly fertilised embryo implanting and growing in the lining of the uterus. IUCs were mostly surpassed by the intrauterine device (IUD). An IUD sits entirely within the uterus, reducing the risk of bacterial transfer between the cervix and uterus. This can lead to infection and sterility.
c. 1910s – Contraceptive sponge. Sponges were widely used as contraception in the early 1900s. This contraceptive sponge is made of rubber, and such sponges – essentially a cervical blockage – were one of a range of contraceptives promoted by the Society for Constructive Birth Control, the organisation was founded by Dr. Marie Stopes (1880-1958). This sponge is in its original aluminium box and was manufactured in Britain by Elarco.
c. 1910s – This condom is made of animal gut membrane, known as caecal. Caecal condoms were effective against pregnancy because animal membrane is porous to viruses. They do not reliably protect against sexually transmitted infections such as AIDS. This example was made by chemists John Bell and Croyden Limited.
c. 1920s – The “Prorace” brand of contraceptives was developed by Dr. Marie Stopes (1880-1958). They were distributed by the Mother’s Clinic, which opened in London in 1921. These contraceptive pessaries contain spermicides to kill sperm. They were used alone or with other contraceptives, such as the cap or diaphragm. The pessaries were manufactured by John Bell and Croyden Limited of London. The trademarked “Prorace” related to Stopes’ belief in eugenics. This widely held theory in the early 1900s argued selective breeding could remove “undesirables” from society.
c. 1920s – “Prorace” cervical cap.
c. 1920 – Rubber vault cap. Contraceptive caps are also called cervical, vault or diaphragm caps. They are barrier contraceptives. Contraceptive caps sit over the cervix. They act as a barrier to sperm entering the uterus. This “Racial” brand of cervical cap was modified by Dr. Marie Stopes (1880-1958). The trademark “Racial” related to Stopes’ belief in eugenics.
c. 1920 – Stem pessaries were intrauterine devices (IUDs). They consisted of a rubber, metal or glass stem attached to a cup or button to hold the stem upright and prevent it becoming lost in the uterus. This example is made of glass. Smaller plastic or copper IUDs are still used today.
Late 1920s – This aluminium stem pessary was made by German company Rauch. The stem held the tool in place.
c. 1925 – Stem pessaries are intrauterine devices (IUDs). They were a common gynecological treatment in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were also used as a contraceptive. This early intrauterine stem pessary consists of catgut loop and bone. The stem held the larger block in place.
c. 1920s – German gynaecologist Ernst Grafenberg devised this intrauterine device (IUD) and was a popular contraceptive. Early examples were made of silkworm gut and silver wire. An IUD works after conception by stopping a newly fertilised embryo implanting and growing in the lining of the uterus. Inserted into the uterus by a physician, it could be left in place for several years.
1935 – Testing condoms. (Getty Images)
c. 1965 – Oral contraceptive pills being manufactured at a factory in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England. (Getty)
(Images: Science Museum, London/ Creative Commons/ Wellcome Images, via Mashable/Retronaut)