Lesley A. Hall
from Oxford Companion to the Body, further details
©OUP, reproduced here by permission of Oxford University Press
May be downloaded and printed out in single copies for individual use only.


While the wearing of penile sheaths made from a diversity of substances--linen, gourds, tortoiseshell, leather, silk, oiled paper-- has been known in numerous societies from distant antiquity, it is less certain that these were employed either as a protection against sexually transmitted disease or for contraceptive purposes, rather than for magical or decorative purposes or modesty. It was the Italian anatomist Gabriello Fallopio (1523-62) who, in a posthumously published work De morbo gallico (on the French disease, i.e. syphilis), recommended as a protection against venereal disease a linen sheath of which he claimed to be the inventor. The means of fitting it--over the glans but under the foreskin, or inserted into the urethra--sound neither comfortable nor particularly practicable. A little later, Hercules Saxonia described a larger linen sheath, soaked in a chemical or herbal preparation. which covered the entire penis.

The invention of the sheep-gut sheath has been persistently attributed to a certain Dr Condom, Cundum or even Quondam, an almost certainly apocryphal figure, during the reign of Charles II [NB: see William E. Kruck, 'Looking for Dr Condom', Publication of the American Dialect Society, no. 66, 1981: after extensive and meticulous research he failed to find any evidence whatsoever even for the existence of a person called Condom or anything similar at the period in question. (Editorial note, July 2006)]. Archaeological evidence, however, suggests that far from being a product of the licentious Restoration era, gut condoms were already available over twenty years earlier during the height of the English Civil War. Five fragments of shaped animal gut were discovered during the excavation of the garderobe (lavatory) of the keep at Dudley Castle, which had been filled in in 1647. These prototype condoms (baudruche, french letters, capotes anglaises, etc), both animal and vegetable, were primarily employed as prophylactics against venereal disease, although there is some literary evidence that their dual purpose as contraceptives was also recognised. There are a number of literary allusions throughout the eighteenth century, most notoriously in the memoirs of Casanova and the diary of James Boswell, to the use of 'armour', or 'implements of safety'. Madame de Sevigné, however, writing of their contraceptive use, considered them 'an armour against enjoyment and a spider-web against danger'. They were manufactured from the caecum or blind gut of sheep, which was soaked, turned inside out, macerated in an alkaline solution, scraped, exposed to brimstone vapour, washed, blown up, dried, cut and given a ribbon tie. It was necessary to soak them to render them supple enough to put on. The labour-intensive process meant that the products were correspondingly expensive (though reusable) and thus only available to a limited proportion of the population.

The next major technological innovation affecting the condom was the vulcanisation of rubber, enabling the production of cheaper condoms in great quantity. The first rubber condoms had a seam but around the beginning of the twentieth century a new method of manufacture was introduced, whereby glass moulds were dipped into liquid rubber. Variant forms developed, such as the teat-ended condom and the 'American' which covered the glans only. Even these, however, were still beyond the reach of the poorest in the community; moreover they were also coarse and clumsy and perceived as unaesthetic, quite apart from the very pervasive feeling that the condom represented an immoral attempt to interfere with the laws of God and Nature. The device was associated with libertinism and even the attempts of neo-Malthusian propagandists to promote the social benefits of birth control were tainted by their association with freethinking secularism.

It is often stated that condoms gained, as it were, a certain currency through being distributed to troops during the First World War in an attempt to control the appallingly high rate of venereal diseases. Many approved official prophylactic packs in fact contained antiseptic ointment. With the rise of an articulate birth control movement during the 1920s, condoms became more discussed. They were not the favoured method of most birth control advocates, being seen as unreliable and unaesthetic and furthermore requiring not merely cooperation but action by the male partner. However, since they did not require expert fitting (as the female pessary did) and could be purchased over the counter and even from slot machines, they were probably the most popular appliance method of birth control until the advent of hormonal contraception in the 1960s.

The technology improved further: the latex process simplified manufacture to the point where it could be automated, making the product cheaper, and created a thinner, more elastic, and more reliable condom. There has been little additional technical innovation, though some brands now include added lubricant or spermicide. Novelty condoms (with no practical value) are produced as sex toys, with a variety of supposedly stimulating excrescences, in different colours, and even flavours.

The reliability of condoms has been a matter of much concern. There was a persistent belief that there was a law requiring one in ten or twelve to be faulty, or that Catholic workers in rubber-goods factories pricked a certain proportion with a pin. Quality testing, however, gradually made its way into this marginalised industry, in Great Britain stimulated by the possibility of winning the commercially useful accolade of a place on the National Birth Control Association's 'Approved List' of reliable products.

With the advent of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s, the condom lost a good deal of its popularity as a birth control method, while antibiotics meant that venereal disease was no longer perceived as a risk. The condom retained rather louche associations with male promiscuity rather than male responsibility (even though the vast majority were probably used to manifest the latter). The current estimate of its reliability in preventing pregnancy runs from 85-98%, much depending on the user.

The condom has made a comeback since the advent of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus as a means of preventing the dangerous exchange of bodily fluids. How extensive condom use actually is in the 1990s is still moot. The subject is still capable of arousing considerable embarrassment.


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