If the Sheath Fits
A brief overview of condom history
A question that often arises among romance authors is whether or not to have their heroes suit up. Dress the soldier. Wear a raincoat. In other words, use protection, act responsibly, practice safe sex. The condom has become one of the more debated aspects of the romance genre, especially erotic romance.
Arguments on both sides can be fierce. Many authors and readers argue that it’s irresponsible of fiction to not show characters engaging in (and presumably enjoying) safe sex. Others maintain that the romance novel is inherently a fantasy, and to interrupt the moment with mundane precautions would detract from the reader’s enjoyment. While both sides have valid points to be made, the decision gets even trickier when writing a historical romance. Condoms have been available, in one form or another, for a long, long time. Whether or not our historical heroes would have had ready access to them or any inclination to use them depends on a lot of variables: when and where the hero lives being the most important. Wealth, religion, educational level—all of these can factor in. And of course, depending on how it was made and what it was made of, the efficacy varied wildly. So to get it right, an author actually needs to know a little bit about the origins of the little foil packet.
Nobody knows exactly when the condom was invented. There are Egyptian hieroglyphics roughly 3000 years old that show a man wearing what looks like a linen sheath over his penis. Nobody is sure if this was to prevent disease or pregnancy, or just for decoration. There are rumors of the Romans using this or that for contraception, but no definite references to what could be considered a condom. Cave paintings in France dated to around 100 AD again show men wearing a colored sheath, but again, we have no idea why.
However, people have been trying to not get pregnant, for one reason or another, almost as long as others have been trying to get pregnant. And it’s just common sense to put a barrier between the sperm and the womb. So the use of homemade condoms could go back—well—as at least as long as humans have been making sausage. Given the obviousness of a length of sheep gut with a knot tied in it, it seems likely that these relatively risky versions have been used for a long, long time. Keep in mind though, that most of Europe was Catholic through the Middle Ages, and that the Catholic Church considered contraception of any kind (even withdrawal) a major sin. So while the concept may well have existed, it probably wasn’t discussed publicly or in common use.
The first written reference to what we now call a condom was by an Italian scientist named Fallopio (yes, as in Fallopian tubes) in 1564. He claimed to have “invented” a device to prevent the spread of venereal disease. The description isn’t very detailed, but apparently it was a linen sheath that fit over the glans. He actually tested it on 1100 men and none of them became infected. So the condom for disease prevention isn’t a recent phenomenon. Another doctor published something similar in 1597. From there forward, there’s a pretty clear record of condom use and innovation. They’re mentioned in a French play from 1655, maybe in the correspondence of two French noblewomen from the late 1600s and quite extensively in the memoirs of the legendary Giacomo Casanova, published in 1797. The famous lover didn’t much like them and there’s an engraving in the book of he and a friend inflating them like balloons to entertain a pair of ladies, thus starting a proud tradition carried out by high school boys to this day. The word condom dates in print to 1706, in a poem, but the origins of the word remain a mystery. Legend says that a Dr. Condom introduced them to Charles II of England as a means of preventing additional illegitimate offspring, but no support of this has ever been found, and it’s now assumed to be a myth.
By the late 1700s you could find prophylactics made of hand sewn goat, sheep, or cow intestine, tanned fish skin, oiled silk, or even very fine leather. Some covered the whole penis, others were caps or “capottes” that just covered the glans, and most had a drawstring at the base to hold them in place. Condom technology really took off in the 1800s. They had great names like cundums, French Letters, French Preservatives, Male Safes, English Armor, and “Patent Circular Protector.” Early experiments with rubber were fairly unsuccessful, until Goodyear and Hancock (separately) in about 1844 invented the vulcanization process. The new technique allowed for much more durable protection, though the resulting condoms were thicker than those made of skin. They were also designed to be washed out and reused until the rubber started to crumble. The first advertisement for rubber condoms appeared in the New York Times in 1861, so we know they were widely available by then. In 1873, the Comstock Act prohibited the sale of contraceptives by mail in the US, so for many years, they became harder to get with relative anonymity. The reservoir tip was added in 1901, and a method for making them without seams was discovered in Germany in 1912. In 1930 the latex condom was introduced, thus creating the rubber we know today.
Condom history often parallels the mores of our society. The strict moralism of America in the early 1900s led to concentrated efforts to restrict condom use. As a result, during WWI, US soldiers had the highest venereal disease rate of any country, over 70%, by some sources, and by WWII, the US military had come around and begun actively promoting safe sex. In 1949, Japan produced the first colored condoms, and lubricated rubbers debuted in the 1950s. In the 60s, polyurethane condoms were introduced, but were quickly pulled from the market because of their high rate of breakage. Spermicidal lubricant was first introduced in 1975.
The late 1960s saw a downturn in the condom business. Between the introduction of the pill and antibiotics taking the fear out of syphilis and gonorrhea, the idea of a sensation-dulling barrier lost a lot of its appeal. This turned around dramatically after the world learned about HIV in the 1980s, and the discovery that condoms dramatically reduced transmission of this incurable disease. Suddenly condoms were big business again. The wild 1990s saw the introduction of sized condoms, along with novelty products like flavors, ribs, studs, and even glow-in-the-dark rubbers. Polyurethane was reintroduced, with newer technologies solving the old issues of breakage. Condom innovations continue, as safe-sex becomes more and more a prominent social issue. And, for those with latex allergies, or who just like things old-school, be assured you can still buy condoms made of animal gut. They’re available on line or in your favorite drugstore—right next to the magnums and the ones ribbed for your pleasure.
So should we take time in a romance for our heroes to put on a condom? That question remains up to the author and the reader. But if you’re going to write it, do it right. Learn a little about the history of this marvelous invention. Make the condom fit the place, the time, and the story—and, of course, the hero.
* Youssef, H (01 Apr 1993). "The history of the condom". Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Link: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1293956
* Brodie, Janet Farrell, 1997. Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America, Cornell University Press. Link: http://books.google.com/books?id=Wbeoi0rGvpkC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_v2_summary_r&cad=0
* “Trojan Condoms History (Including a History of Condoms)” from the Trojan Condoms website: http://www.trojancondoms.org/index.php/trojan-condom-history/
* “The History of Condoms” from the Everything-Condoms.com: http://www.everything-condoms.com/condom_facts/history_of_condoms.htm
~~~Cindy Spencer Pape has been, among other things, a banker, a teacher, and an elected politician, though she swears she got better. She still does volunteer work in environmental education, when she can fit it in around writing. She lives in Michigan with her husband, two teenage sons, a dog, and a lizard. Her website is http://www.cindyspencerpape.com