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Modern birth control hasn’t been around for that long. But that doesn’t mean other forms of it didn’t exist in the centuries before it came about.
In the 1800s, all kinds of things were used to prevent pregnancy — some much less effectively than others.
Read on to learn all about contraception in the 19th century.
Definitely not. Since ancient times, people were known to have used birth control, according to Planned Parenthood.
Ancient Egyptians around 1850 B.C. favored the likes of honey and acacia fruit as a spermicide and even used animal dung to “block” the vagina.
Toxic substances were also on the menu, with mercury and arsenic used not just in ancient Egypt but also by the Greeks and Chinese. (Unfortunately, this did result in death in many cases.)
Even early forms of condoms, made of linen, have been found in ancient Egypt.
In ancient Rome, douching with water, lemon juice, or vinegar was popular, along with good old abstinence.
There are also records of the pull out method across several ancient societies — potentially the only effective birth control to be used at the time.
Before the 1800s hit, practices like “bundling” were popular.
This simply meant unmarried couples sleeping in the same bed with all their clothes on or with a board in the middle to discourage and ultimately prevent vaginal intercourse. But it didn’t exactly work, considering many pregnancies still happened.
So, what was society like in the 1800s? Had it progressed much beyond bundling? And what did people really think about birth control?
Many religious and political organizations condemned birth control, according to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
But they found it hard to talk openly about such an “immoral” practice, resorting to code words such as “a stoppage of nature.”
Several voices spoke up in favor of it in the early 1800s.
Books by the likes of Charles Knowlton and Robert Dale Owen spoke about the benefits of pregnancy prevention in terms of keeping families small and as a result more financially stable.
However, that doesn’t mean these books were welcomed — in fact, Knowlton received a fine and a hard labor punishment as a result of numerous lawsuits.
Still, the books kept coming, with authors trying to bring about a new understanding of sexuality, anatomy, and, most importantly, contraception.
This knowledge seems to have made a change to the average person’s life.
After all, the United States went from having one of the world’s highest birth rates in the early part of the 19th century to an average of three children per family by the late 1800s.
But plenty of magazines continued to advertise the role of women as mothers of large families. Similarly, the law didn’t support birth control throughout the entire century.
In the 1840s, states began to prohibit the sale and use of contraceptives. And in 1873, the federal government actually banned contraceptives.
Cisgender women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) on other continents like Europe also had a large number of pregnancies, with many people dying while giving birth.
Yet, they did use contraception, particularly wealthier people. This was due to a desire to space out pregnancies by cisgender men, people assigned male at birth (AMAB), and AFAB folks.
However, religion and Victorian restraint did dominate the times. Many people believed that a pregnancy was something to be kept, not prevented.
Despite those feelings, abortion rates were high, suggesting that the will of the people and the thoughts of leaders were at odds.
Although people used all kinds of weird and wonderful things to try and prevent pregnancy, only a select few were effective.
Even then, their effectiveness usually relied on a person’s ability to use the birth control correctly.
And, of course, modern technology hadn’t kicked in, so people of the 1800s didn’t always have the safe and comfortable materials we’re used to today.
Here are the contraceptives used in the 19th century that actually worked (at least some of the time).
People had been using forms of condoms for centuries before the 1800s, according to 2013 research.
In the early part of the 19th century, condoms tended to be made from animal intestines and tied in place with a ribbon.
But in 1839, a man named Charles Goodyear made a huge development: vulcanized rubber.
And that later spelled the mass production of rubber condoms, creating a more effective form of birth control that more people could afford.
Plus, they helped protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
However, in 1873, the Comstock laws started a ban on contraceptives, including condoms. This forced manufacturers to call them by a different name, per older research from 1996.
Rubber condoms remained popular until the invention of latex in the 1920s.
Latex paved the way for the modern condoms used today, which are much stronger and stretchier.
People inserted cup-shaped devices, like diaphragms and cervical caps, into the vagina to block sperm from entering the uterus.
And, when used with a spermicide, they were probably the most effective birth control of the time, aside from abstinence.
Before Goodyear’s rubber invention, people tended to insert all kinds of objects — even half a lemon.
However the safer and more comfortable rubber versions that inspired today’s devices weren’t as popular as condoms.
After all, diaphragms and cervical caps were too expensive for many people, required a level of personal intimacy that people weren’t used to, and often needed a doctor’s prescription.
Withdrawal — the act of pulling out before ejaculation — was the most accessible form of birth control in the 1800s, since it didn’t cost a thing.
It can be highly effective if used correctly, and it was in fact effective for some people at that time. But it’s hard to do perfectly and, even now, there’s always a chance of getting semen inside the vagina.
The most effective contraceptive, if stuck to continuously, was abstinence. This simply means not having sex at all.
It was promoted quite a lot throughout the 1800s, and many married women did follow it. (Of course, some may not have had the freedom to choose this.)
However, lots of married men then turned to prostitution, causing “epidemics” of STIs.
Unfortunately, a lot of the popular ways to prevent pregnancy didn’t work. Still, people continued to use them throughout the 1800s.
Here are a few of the most ineffective birth control methods of that time.
Douches were more easily accessible than contraceptives like condoms because they were marketed as hygiene products rather than as birth control.
But they weren’t exactly effective and, in some cases, were outright dangerous. One particularly unsafe solution involved a disinfectant, Lysol, which could lead to burns and death if used.
Still, people believed that they could wash sperm away or kill it with such products, and they used specially made syringes to do just that.
Thankfully, douching’s popularity waned as more modern contraception was introduced.
Sponges were dipped into a solution, such as olive oil, and inserted into the vagina. The aim? To block sperm’s path and kill it with the “spermicide.”
To make removal easier, manufacturers put the sponges inside nets and attached a drawstring.
But although this was a popular method, it isn’t thought to have been that effective. And the “spermicide” solutions used could have caused adverse effects.
Now known as a fertility awareness method, the rhythm method meant avoiding sex during an AFAB person’s fertile period.
But, unlike now, people in the 1800s didn’t really know when that fertile period was. In fact, up until around 1930, doctors thought people ovulated when they had their period.
That misinformation obviously led to an ineffective form of birth control. But the rhythm method remained one of the top five ways to prevent pregnancy throughout the century.
In the 1870s, research into the effects of ovulation on body temperature began to take place.
And in the 1970s, the symptothermal method that some use today was born. This method uses body temperature and other signs of ovulation to predict the fertile period.
To prevent pregnancy, people in the 1800s believed you needed to:
While they weren’t wrong in some ways, there were a few misconceptions. And those were not the only inaccurate beliefs of the time. Here are a few others.
People thought that the contractions an AFAB person experienced during an orgasm would push the sperm toward the egg and hold it there.
Science has found no evidence of this. But people believed it to the point that they thought pregnancy was impossible if the partner with a vulva didn’t orgasm.
Of course, that’s not true either.
In the Victorian part of the 19th century, sexual desire was the realm of cisgender men.
The only AFAB folks who were thought to have it were prostitutes, who were viewed as a lower class who existed to relieve cisgender men.
Other AFAB people, particularly those who were married or hoped to marry, were told to only have sex with the purpose of having a child.
Regardless of a person’s gender, masturbation was effectively ostracized for most of the 1800s.
Doctors even believed it led to illness and hysteria.
Some doctors thought that menstruation went against nature, as AFAB people should be pregnant.
Others believed it was linked to “madness.”
The pill is often thought of as the first truly modern contraceptive. But it wasn’t publicly available in the United States until 1960. (It appeared a year later in the United Kingdom.)
Even then, unmarried people couldn’t easily access it and some began to stop using it over fear of side effects. That prompted the creation of lower-dose pills in the late 1980s.
Other contemporary birth control methods, like the intrauterine device (IUD), were around before. But between the 1960s and 1980s, the versions we see today were introduced.
However, not all countries used hormonal contraception — in the late 1980s, 250 million people in developing nations were estimated to have no access to family planning services.
To this day, sterilization for AFAB folks and external condoms are the two most common contraceptives worldwide.
If you need more information on the various birth control options or want to find out how to access them, here are some resources to help:
Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraine, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.
Last medically reviewed on September 27, 2021










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