Thursday, June 8, 2023
Condoms: Colorful & Controversial
Condoms have had a very colorful and sometimes controversial history, especially in North America. Condoms, in varying forms, and other means of birth control have been around for centuries. Early contraceptives were made from materials on hand ranging from animal dung, horns, animal intestines, to seaweed. But they did not come neatly packaged in paper or foils. That only really began in the late 1830s with the invention of vulcanized rubber and the massive impact it had on the condom industry.
Mass Production of Condoms
The general perception of the 1800’s Victorian Era is not usually one of open sexuality or ease of access to contraceptives. But it actually was!
“Condom production ballooned after 1839, when Charles Goodyear’s method of rubber vulcanization kick-started modern latex technologies in the United States. By 1870, condoms were available through almost any outlet you can imagine–drug suppliers, doctors, pharmacies, dry-goods retailers and mail-order houses. It may seem surprising today, but sexual products were openly sold and distributed during much of the 19th century.”
So, condoms were everywhere and easy to access. Until the hammer came down in the form of Comstock’s Act.
Anthony Comstock began a huge reform movement that actually was passed by the US Congress as a Law. Comstock’s Act was passed in 1873 after Comstock equated contraception to a free license to partake in sexual shenanigans and infidelity. This made the sale, advertising, or mailing of any contraceptive illegal. It could actually result in prison time!
Although it impacted the explicit sale of condoms, it most certainly did not stop them. Folks, being resilient and resourceful as always, just found a loophole to market them different. And part of this new approach was for the prevention of infections.
Prevention vs Contraception
The advent of science and the understanding of germs, transmission included, was applied to condoms as a way to market them. Suddenly they could offer a product “for safety” and not even mention contraception. This concept of infection prevention was only beginning to be understood. The advent of World War I brought it home…. literally. STIs, especially gonorrhea and syphilis, were rampant in the troops. The fight against STIs was on, but still as a reaction to the issue not as prevention. The concept of disease prevention would still need some more time.
Condoms began to be viewed as a necessary medical device to help combat and prevent STIs. This saw the rise of messaging on condom packaging with references to safety during sex. Condom messaging was not about pleasure and fun, but about being safer to help reduce the possibility of contracting a Venereal Disease.
But it still wasn’t until 1937 that the FDA instituted a national standard for testing of condoms to make sure they met safety guidelines. And then condoms and the advertising of their merits were fully used as North America entered World War II. Access to condoms was military de rigueur. The messaging was to protect your country and yourself. Condoms advertised their function to the user with the names and messages on the packaging.
Today condoms are still an important medical device for safer sex practices. But they are now also seen as something that can be for pleasure as well. They are available for use as contraceptives, help in preventing or reducing the transmission of infections, and for pleasure or fun. Due to the myriad of options available, condoms can be both fun and functional. Condoms have had an interesting and controversial history, one that continues to evolve over time.
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