People & Events: Birth Control Before the Pill
Since ancient times, women all over the world have used a variety of methods for contraception. Prior to the introduction of the Pill, however, choices were limited and existing methods were less than perfect.
The Oldest Methods
Some methods still used today have their roots in antiquity. The withdrawal method was recorded in the Bible's book of Genesis. Around 1850 B.C. Egyptian women mixed acacia leaves with honey or used animal dung to make vaginal suppositories to prevent pregnancy. The Greeks in the 4th century B.C. used natural ointments made with olive and cedar oil as spermicides. A popular Roman writer advocated abstinence. "Womb veils," a 19th-century phrase for diaphragms cervical caps, and condoms, often made from linen or fish intestines, have been in use for centuries. In the 1700s, the famous seducer Giacomo Casanova told of using half a lemon rind as a cervical cap.
In pre-industrial America, women used homemade herbal douches to prevent pregnancy. If a pregnancy was discovered, there were elixirs women could take to induce a miscarriage. Common ingredients in these "female preparations" were the herbs savin and pennyroyal.
The Rubber Revolution
The biggest breakthrough in contraception in the nineteenth century was not a new method, but a technological improvement of existing methods. In 1839, Charles Goodyear revolutionized the rubber industry when he made vulcanized rubber. He mass produced rubber condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes and diaphragms. Despite federal and state anti-birth control laws, "rubbers" were enormously popular and sales were brisk.
Most Effective Device
Although the diaphragm used with a spermicide was the most effective device available, it was never as popular as the condom. Women needed to see a doctor to get one, and that was expensive and embarrassing for many. Some were also uncomfortable with the physical intimacy necessary to insert the contraceptive.
During the depression, women desperate for inexpensive methods to prevent pregnancy often relied on over-the-counter contraceptive products such as vaginal jellies, liquids, suppositories, foaming tablets and antiseptic douching solutions known as "feminine hygiene." These items could be sold openly because they were advertised as hygiene products, not contraceptives. Most didn't work well, but were harmless. In the case of the disinfectant douche, however, women were susceptible to serious burns or even death if they didn't dilute the poisonous substances sufficiently before use.
The Pill's Success
Prior to the Pill, none of the available methods were as effective as women desired. Many were messy and awkward to use, and the most popular method, the condom, was male-controlled. The Pill was a huge technological advance because it was female-controlled, simple to use, highly effective, and most revolutionary of all, it separated reproduction and contraception from the sexual act. The Pill could be taken anytime, anywhere and without anyone else knowing. No method in previous centuries had ever achieved that level of privacy and female control.
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