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Contraceptive or protective? The slow rise of the condom

Condom packaging for "Prentif Servis pak", London, England, 1935-1945

Condom packaging for "Prentif Servis pak", London, England, 1935-1945

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Condoms are now everywhere. They provide cheap, accessible, simple but effective contraception. They come in a range of colours and sizes. The condom is a cultural icon. It also plays a leading role in combating the spread of HIV/AIDS and other STIs.

A defensive barrier against disease

This contemporary role echoes the condom’s origins in Europe. It protected against another deadly disease called syphilis that was then sweeping the world. In 1564 physician Gabriello Fallopio recorded the use of thin chemically soaked linen sheets held in place by a ribbon. The condom’s history before this is very speculative. Oiled paper and animal gut tissues were allegedly used as even earlier ‘condoms’ in China, and caps of leather or turtle shell were employed in Japan.


By the early 1700s linen sheets were superseded by barriers made from the fine membrane of animal intestines or bladders. They were more at home in brothels than domestic settings. Protection against syphilis was the priority, and thus they were objects of shame and embarrassment. These are associations they never completely lost. The English called them ‘French letters’, while in France they were capotes anglaises (‘English overcoats’). Both these terms reflected ancient animosities.

The arrival of the ‘rubber’ and condom use as birth control

Condoms remained handmade ‘luxury’ items until the mid 1800s. Rubber vulcanisation then allowed mass production. Parallel with this technological change was the emergence of a birth control movement in Britain, formed after Thomas Malthus’s damning analysis of population growth. The movement gave impetus to using condoms as contraceptives. However, these new condoms remained crude and uncomfortable. They were rarely advocated by campaigners.


A switch to latex in the 1920s transformed the market. Latex condoms were thinner, yet harder wearing. They were produced in their millions from the late 1920s, and became the contraceptive of choice among poorer classes. Condoms were virtually ignored by leading birth control campaigners Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger. Stopes stated they were ‘unromantic and unaesthetic’; she preferred the rubber cervical cap. Sanger advocated the diaphragm.

The condom in the age of the pill

Condoms were issued by the military for protection against venereal diseases during the Second World War and remained popular after the war. However, the wide availability of the contraceptive pill and IUDs from the early 1960s led to a decline in condom use. Using antibiotics to treat STIs also lessened their public health importance.

There were exceptions. Approval of the contraceptive pill in Japan was delayed until 1999; condoms remained the primary form of birth control in its absence. Japan accounted for 25% of the world market in the early 1980s, and condoms are still Japan’s most popular contraceptive.


Condoms in the fight against AIDS

Condoms were distributed throughout the developing world during post-war birth control campaigns. However, their status was transformed by the HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. As the safest barrier method, they became synonymous with disease prevention and ‘safe sex’. Condoms remain a cornerstone of AIDS prevention.

Condoms have consolidated their dual role as contraception and protection. This is despite strong cultural, religious and political opposition from some parts of the world. The female condom has so far failed to achieve wide acceptance. However, the humble ‘rubber’ is an integral part of modern life.

Related Objects

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R Jütte, Contraception: A History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007)

A Mindel, Condoms (London: BMJ Books, 2000)

H Youssef, ‘The history of the condom’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 86/4 (April 1993), pp 226-8

A Collier, The Humble Little Condom: A History (New York: Prometheus Books, 2007)

N Vitellone, Object Matters: Condoms, Adolescence and Time (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008)

A Tone, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America (New York: Hill & Wang, 2002)


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