Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Tour Through Birth Control History

So you are sick of using condoms...

It's always hip to be retro in some way -- flared pants, 60s graphic prints, peddle-pushers your Mom could have worn. If you're bored with today's modern contraceptives, let's take a tour through birth control history.

First off, condoms have been around for much longer than most people realize. As early as 1840 rubber condoms appeared on the market due to the development of vulcanization. The side effects were nastier than some of the STDs they prevented, though -- these early condoms tended to cause rashes due to the sulfur used to vulcanize the rubber. Savvy manufacturers rushed to fix this irritating problem. They fixed it by rinsing the rubbers in acid. Acid. The stuff that eats through car batteries. Needless to say it caused a little blistering. Ouch!

Beyond Condoms

Rubbers weren't the only contraceptive options available to yesterday's lovers. Many of today's modern methods have predecessors that are remarkably similar. Sometimes they were a little less effective, sometimes they had a little more flair. And sometimes they were just plain bizarre.
Early condoms caused rashes due to the sulfur used to vulcanize the rubber. Savvy manufacturers rushed to fix this irritating problem. They fixed it by rinsing the rubbers in acid. Acid. The stuff that eats through car batteries. Needless to say it caused a little blistering.
Today's diaphragms and cervical caps are so, well, boring. Plain beige rubber designed with absolutely no thought for fashion. Even during World War II they were more fashion-conscious. When war rationing made rubber hard to come by, expensive rubber hotel floor tiles were used to create colorful and attractive diaphragms for women in England. Imagine birth control you could mix and match with your favorite underwear. . .

Few birth control devices have been as creatively designed over the years as intrauterine devices (IUDs). While the most common IUDs today are simply straight sticks or Ts of plastic and copper, earlier IUDs have been made into a stunning array of shapes. History records the use of small stones as IUD-like devices as long ago as 3,000 years. The modern IUD dates back to the 1940s, and initially was a small silver ring. Small plastic shapes resembling line drawings of the caduceus, flowers, birds, and spirals were all available. One product, the Lippes Loop, looked something like a double-S curve. And the infamous Dalkon Shield, the subject of a class action lawsuit in the late 1980s by women claiming a variety of physical damages from the IUD, was shaped like a spiny fish. Nowadays these former birth control devices aren't good for much except as unusual pendants or earrings.

Oral Contraceptives -- Before the Pill

Going back to a time before vegetarianism was chic, many ancient birth control techniques used animal byproducts. Dried beaver testicle brewed with alcohol once made for an unusual morning-after treatment. Another animal product that doesn't involve killing or maiming is the tried-and-(maybe) true crocodile dung and fermented dough pessary. This is as retro as you can get -- from approximately 1850 B.C.
When war rationing made rubber hard to come by, expensive rubber hotel floor tiles were used to create colorful and attractive diaphragms for women in England. Imagine birth control you could mix and match with your favorite underwear...

Of course, there were plenty of vegetarian birth control options throughout history. Ancient Greeks commonly used a plant called Silphium, which researchers today believe could have been as effective as modern birth control pills. Silphium was used widely -- its image is on coins, and an entire city based its economy on export of the plant. Unfortunately, due to its popularity, it was used to extinction by the third or fourth century B.C. The closest modern-day equivalent is Queen Anne's Lace, or Wild Carrot. Its seeds are still used today in some rural areas of the USA, and it has been shown in medical trials to be a highly effective contraceptive and abortifacient. Women would simply mix a teaspoon or two of its seeds with a glass of water and drink it. Confusing it with any of its close relatives is dangerous, however. These almost-identical plants tend to have lovely side effects such as seizures, vomiting, and death.

Every era had some form of birth control, with some time periods faring better than others. Even the notoriously prudish Victorians used birth control. The block pessary, a small wooden square with concavities cut in each side, functioned something like a diaphragm but was quite painful. In a surprising move for a time period when people could purchase underwear with spikes in it to prevent masturbation, the block pessary fell out of use after physicians declared it an instrument of torture and quit recommending it to their patients.

Maybe you better stick to condoms after all . . .

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