History of the Condom

the condom’s image has been powerfully linked with a spectrum of human emotions, from sexual liberation to shame, fear and rage.

by James H. Marsh for the book Hardware: The Art of Prevention, edited by Hugh Rigby and Susan Leibtag

Although the provenance of the word “condom,” like that of so many English words, is obscure, it is persuasively associated with an enterprising English doctor at the court of King Charles II. Dr. Condum’s “happy invention” was celebrated in an anonymous poem in 1708 for its power to “quench the heat of Venus’s fire/And yet preserve the Flame of Love’s Desire.”

Since then the condom’s image has been powerfully linked with a spectrum of human emotions, from sexual liberation to shame, fear and rage. Much of the power of the image comes from the condom itself, implying the erect penis and the most intimate sexual contact.

Necessity and ingenuity have invented and reinvented the condom in diverse cultures. Evidence of its use on ancient Egypt or Rome or even in prehistoric cave paintings is equivocal. In the absence of knowledge of viruses, the purpose may have been more decorative than protective. The first indisputable reference to a protective sheath was published in 1564 by the brilliant Italian anatomist Gabriello Fallopio, who described a linen coat designed either to fit the glans of the penis or (more painfully) to be inserted into the urethra. Eleven hundred men tried the contraption, Fallopio claimed, and none were infected with venereal disease.

Since sex outside marriage or even within it, when it is not for the purpose of procreation, is regarded as a sin in Western Christian society, the little apparatus was immediately reviled by the Church as a “filthy” and “nasty” incitement to lust. The attitude that disease, even death, is just punishment for sexual transgression persists to this day.

Casanova entertained his women by blowing up his “English overcoats” like balloons (Library of Congress).

The promise that the condom could, as Casanova himself wrote, put “one’s mind at rest” about unwanted pregnancy (and heirs) was the second great appeal. A 17th century poem by the son of a prominent English bishop even rejoiced in the liberating effect that the condom would have on young women, now freed from the “big Belly, and the squawking brat.”

Early condoms were made from sheep’s caeca, the large blind pouch forming the beginning of the large intestine. It was steeped in water, scraped and washed. “Superfine” condoms were scented, stretched on a mould and polished with glass. The first known advertisements for condoms, in 17th century London, were handbills carrying the following sales pitch:
“To guard yourself from shame or fear,
Votaries to Venus, fasten here;
None in our wares e’er found a flaw,
Self-preservation’s nature’s law.”
This now familiar claim of reliability resulted in orders from France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and elsewhere.

It was not until Goodyear invented the process of vulcanizing rubber in 1843-44 that there was a real means of producing cheaper and truly reliable condoms. “Rubbers” became widely available in the 1870s, but they still needed a means of advertisement. This was provided by 19th century sociology as the Malthusian league persuasively linked overpopulation and poverty and made dire predictions for the future if population was not controlled. The League promoted the use of condoms but made little headway until two of its members were tried and jailed for their activities. Press reports of the trial carried information on contraception further than the League had dared. Indeed the spread of this information, once the domain of the literate upper classes, has been convincingly linked to the decline in the English birth rate in the late 19th century.

In the 20th century, the focus has shifted firmly back to the prevention of disease, though the condom is recommended in every treatise on family planning as well. The mass armies of the First World War were fertile ground for sexually transmitted disease. Distressed by the staggering amount of fighting time lost to venereal disease, authorities stubbornly resorted to moral exhortation and terrifying posters to curb the behavior of young soldiers. (Educators used exactly the same hopeful methods to curb the behavior of male students in Toronto high schools when I was a student in the 1950s.) Despite a well-planned media campaign which admonished soldiers to think of their wives, sweethearts and mothers(!) they had left behind, less than a third of the troops based in France during World War I managed to abstain. In spite of the failure of the sermons and the widespread suffering caused by venereal disease, authorities still considered the condom too much of a threat to what current conservative politicians like to call “family values.” In fact, in the United States, the Comstock Act of 1873 proclaimed that any information pertaining to the “prevention of conception” is obscene and a criminal offence.

Attitudes changed during World War II as educational campaigns in Western armies finally promoted the use of condoms. (The author’s father, after contracting his third dose of gonorrhea, was rebuked by the medical advisor for not using condoms, not for his lack of abstinence.) The distribution of millions of condoms during the war was predictably catigated by those who still believed that contraception promotes promiscuity. The “doctrine of consequences” remains the primary argument of those who see fear of disease and unwanted pregnancy as the only moral means of restraining men from their beastly behaviour.

Though the use of condoms in World War II was a public-health success, it served only to reinforce the unpleasant associations with prostitution, disease and infidelity. While two hundred years of technological development have resulted in low cost, easily accessible and reliable prevention of viral transmission, the condom is still under-utilized. Why? One reason is the availability of curative antibiotic therapy for sexually-transmitted disease. Another important reason was is reluctance of the media to advertise condoms. In other areas of health concern, notably smoking and drug and alcohol abuse, media involvement has shown effective ways of influencing behavior. Similar efforts for the condom have been hindered by persistent opposition by religious and anti-abortion groups.

AIDS has added the utmost urgency to the condom debate. Because there is no cure for this fatal infection, public-health officials have enthusiastically endorsed the use of condoms to prevent the spread of the virus. Because contraception and sexual behaviour will always provoke profound cultural and ethical differences, responses to the AIDS crisis have varied from country to country. For those who oppose the spread of information, the issue of contraception has been displaced by that of the anathema of homosexuality and a reapplication of the doctrine of consequences. However, the fear of the spread of the AIDS epidemic and the rising consciousness of so much suffering and death, have moved public officials to act and to effect the release of some of the strictures to publicity.

Those who promote the use of condoms realize that its image exerts great influence on its potential users. The task of changing this image is falling to the advertising firms and graphic designers worldwide who are trying to overcome the negative images of the condom associated with incontinence, immorality and disease by promoting images of prudence, responsibility and care. Condoms are not a panacea to AIDS. They are part of a solution to prevent further spread of HIV infection. At this time the image makers have the opportunity to perform a social function. In the process they are dealing with the deepest complexities of sexuality itself.

© James H. Marsh 1994 

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