The earliest written description of condoms is from the sixteenth century, although it seems they were probably in use before that time. The name “condom” alleged was coined by Charles II when Dr. Condom or Conton gave him an oiled sheep intestines to use. However, other people believe the name came from the Latin word “condus” which means a “vessel.”
The first documented condoms were made from linen, tied with a ribbon, and fitted over the entire penis or tip. Condoms were also made from leather and, by the 1700s, from animal membranes, such as intestines or bladders softened with chemicals. By the 1800s, they were created “from the coecum of sheep.” One description of preparations taken for sheep condoms stated:
“The coecal intestine are prepared by soaking them in an alkaline solution, then cleaning, scraping, and stretching, sulphuring; and finally cutting them to the proper length, when they constitute the baudruches, condoms, or French letters.”
Casanova referred to condoms as “English frock coats.” The French called them “capote anglaise” and that is why they were referred to as English riding coats. But the French also viewed condoms as a fetish used solely for continental sailors and prostitutes. Young men on the Grand Tour often enclosed them in messages sent home and so they soon became known as “French Letters” in England. But exactly why the nicknames of English riding coats and French letters were used continues to be debated.
Condoms became more commonly known after Gabriele Falloppio, an anatomist and physician of the sixteenth century, wrote a treatise about syphilis and proved condoms prevented the disease. Thus, during the 1700s and 1800s condoms were used primarily for the prevention of venereal diseases but not as a contraception tool. This occurred for several reasons: Religious supporters claimed it was immoral to interfere with pregnancy, critics argued condoms encouraged sexual promiscuity, and women did not want men to control pregnancy.
Despite opposition to condoms, the desire for them by men grew. Although they could be purchased in the 1700s in many sizes, varying qualities, and at a variety of places, such as open-air markets, barbershops, brothels, pubs, and even theatres, they were not widely used for either venereal diseases or contraception at the time. They also remained expensive, which limited them to the upper classes. This meant that wealthy men such as the Princesse de Lamballe‘s husband or her future and wayward brother-in-law, the Duke d’Orleans were the type of men who purchased them.
Although many people of the 1700s knew that the condom could provide protection against venereal diseases, they did not use them regularly partly because they were expensive and partly because they were cumbersome. The Prince de Lamballe and the Duke d’Orleans must have purchased condoms as both men were known to be highly sexually active, but if they did, both men apparently didn’t use them regularly because they developed some form of venereal disease, and, in fact, the Prince de Lamballe died from syphilis about a year and a half after his marriage to the princess.
What finally encouraged the condom’s use was vulcanization. It was process created by Charles Goodyear, an American self-taught chemist and manufacturing engineer. He discovered in 1837 that when rubber was treated with sulfur and high heat it produced a pliable, waterproof, moldable rubber that was stable and elastic. He then began producing all sorts of rubber products, including condoms. Around the 1840s, as more rubber products were produced the price of condoms fell and their popularity skyrocketed to the point that condoms began being called “rubbers.”
Although condoms had been proven to protect against venereal diseases,* not everyone used them. In 1855, if a gentleman chose to forego them, advice was provided on how he might preserve his health or his “vigor of manhood.” Because it was believed that dangerous disorders could happen to men if they did not have sex, single men found this problematic. Prostitutes solved the problem of a regular sex partner, but they were known to carry sexual transmitted disease. Thus, the following suggestions were given to men to help keep them safe when engaging a prostitute:
“[T]he act should be accomplished in as short a time as possible, and immediately after the ejaculation of the semen, the penis should be withdrawn because it a well-known fact that the susceptibility of the organ to the reception of the contagion is much increased.
After the coït the penis should at once be washed with a solution of soap, and the urine should be voided, because this means the morbid matter which might have adhered to the parts, would again be expelled.
Some grease the penis with a fatty substance previous to its introduction into the vagina; by this means the pores of the skins are obstructed, and the poison is prevented from penetrating into the parts.”
Sex and contraception remained primarily a taboo subject throughout the 1800s. When people tried to talk about it, they often got sued. That was the case for Massachusetts doctor Charles Knowlton after he published Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People in 1832. He provided information about contraception and critics cited his work as “obscene.” Frederick Hollic, another advocate in America who wanted to help people understand human sexual physiology, published The Book of Nature; Containing Information for Young People who are Thinking of Getting Married. He found critics and elitist doctors made efforts to suppress his work and like Knowlton, Hollic was sued for obscenity. Thus, it remained difficult for ordinary people to think about how condoms might be used to prevent venereal diseases or pregnancy.
As condoms became more popular, one doctor came up with ways of using them that had nothing to do with sex. He was H. Otis Hyatt of North Carolina and he wrote an article in 1876 about fifteen uses for condoms. His ideas included filling condoms with ice and placing them on inflamed parts, such as the eyes or spine. He also suggested using them to create ice packs for vaginal or uterus issues, such as during postpartum hemorrhaging. Another suggestions by Hyatt was to use the condom as a dilator in the urethra, uterus, or rectum or it could be slipped over the testicle and served as a “constant pressure for the cure of orchitis.” In addition, he maintained that it could be “filled with water and [a] reed tied into the mouth of it … [to serve as] the old style reed, and pig’s bladder.”
By the late 1800s many feminists were wary of condoms. They did not trust them as contraceptive devices, preferring things they controlled themselves such as diaphragms or spermicidal douches. They also cited condoms as being expensive and unreliable because they often had holes, fell off, or broke. Despite these issues, condoms were still promoted by lecturers or advertised in newspapers, so that by the end of the nineteenth century condoms were considered the Western world’s most popular method of birth control.
*If you’re interested in a post about a strange cure for venereal disease, I wrote a guest post on All Things Georgian titled “Sir Peter Lanolette and his Fumigation Machine.” Click here to read more.
-  Gray, Samuel Frederick, Gray’s Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia, 1848, p. 119.
-  Gollmann, William, The Homeopathic Guide, 1855, p. 51.
-  Atlanta Medical and Surgical Journal, Volume 13, 1876, p. 244.
-  Ibid., p. 244-245.