Pregnancy prevention around the world has a lengthy history that includes many surprisingly
effective but occasionally lethal methods of contraception. Early contraceptive options
offered an array of colorful, creative (and in some cases, incredibly smelly) choices
that included innovative options in barrier devices, spermicides, and oral contraceptives.
Beyond these devices and substances, one of the oldest known methods still in use and
relatively popular today was coitus interruptus (a.k.a. "Pull and Pray" or "Withdrawal"),
with the earliest documented use of this being found in the Bible in a story estimated to
have been written about 2500 years ago. This is the tale of Onan, who was supposed
to be getting his brother's widow, Tamar, pregnant to provide an heir for his deceased
sibling. Instead, he simply had sex with her and withdrew "spill[ing] his seed on the
ground" to make sure she wouldn't get pregnant. Despite the pull and pray method’s bad reputation,
it turns out, as long as you get the "pull" part right, there really isn't much praying
necessary. Among other studies, research done in 2008 at the Guttmacher Institute in
New York demonstrated the withdrawal method, when executed perfectly, is 96% effective
for preventing pregnancy. This basically means over the course of a year 4 out of 100 women
who use this method as their primary form of birth control will become pregnant in that
year. For comparison, using a condom, when done perfectly, is 98% effective and oral
contraception has a "perfect use" rate of 99.7% effective.
Now this is when all three methods are done "perfectly", so what about in actual practice
with everyday people? The pull and pray method is roughly 82% effective while using
a condom is roughly 83% effective, so you are only getting a 1% improvement for your
money. The pill, in contrast, does offer a much better "real world use" rate of about
96%. And, of course, some people just don’t like to do the “pull” part and it puts
an awful lot of trust in the guy to do his job. Nevertheless, for trusting partners and
where STIs aren’t really a concern, it turns out historically when talking preventing pregnancy,
people have always had something basically as good as condoms at their disposal.
And, of course, performing the withdrawal method "perfectly" isn't too complex- the
withdrawal part being obvious and simply a matter of doing it. That said, there is
one way you can get this part right and still mess up. While you might be thinking pre-cum
would be the culprit, it turns out studies show pre-cum does not typically contain viable
sperm outside of the case of the real problem- residual sperm in the male's urethra from
a previous, but very recent sexual encounter. This problem can be gotten around simply by
the man urinating between sexual encounters- so not too complex a thing to get right either.
Given its simplicity, it’s perhaps unsurprising that previous to the Roman Empire, evidence
suggests that the withdrawal method was one of the primary forms of contraception used.
This fell out of popularity with the Romans who favored other methods available at the
time, most of which have been lost to history, but from anecdotal evidence many of them seem
to have been quite effective themselves. One that is known is that they used Queen Anne's
lace, which is still occasionally used as a form of contraception in some parts of the
world, such as India, and has been shown to have anti-fertility properties.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, most methods of contraception fell out of practice in the
Western world partially from the influence of Christianity, as birth control historically
was seen as sinful within the church, and perhaps also simply because the knowledge
of many of the effective methods was lost. It is generally thought people still popularly
used the pull method, even if it wasn’t discussed in polite conversation or recorded.
Around the early 19th century, however, documented history shows the pull method saw a huge surge
in popularity all over societies the world over and was one of the leading forms of contraception
until methods such as the modern condom and the pill were introduced. Today, around
2.5% of the world's population still uses the withdrawal method as the primary method
of birth control and an estimated 52% of people have used it at least once as an intentional
method of birth control, rather than just withdrawing for, you know, other reasons...
Another contraception method that isn't as new as many people think is the condom.
Although, early versions of the condom didn't always cover the entire penis and, of course,
they certainly weren't made of latex. For example, love-making in Asia often relied
on devices called glans condoms, which addressed only the head of the penis. Animal parts were
a popular choice for making these condoms. The Chinese fashioned theirs out of lamb intestines,
while the Japanese used tortoise shell (called 'kabutoga') or animal horn throughout the
1870s. Animal offal is the internal organs and entrails
of butchered animals, and not the first thing that comes to mind concerning birth control.
But to the Europeans living during the mid-1700s, these organ meats were transformed into their
way of preventing babies. Slaughterhouse workers would style early condoms out of sausage skins.
Interestingly, Jules (Julius) Schmid, the creator of the now-infamous Sheik and Ramses
brands of condoms was once a sausage-maker who made lamb-gut condoms in the 1880s.
Glans condoms were also made out of fabric. There are ancient accounts suggesting early
Egyptians living around 1000 B.C. used linen sheaths during intercourse to protect against
disease. In the 16th century, the Europeans also soaked linen sheaths in a chemical solution
that was laid out to dry before use. Pieces of the cloth were measured to cover the glans
of the penis, and later held in place with ribbon.
Fast-forward to one of the crowning achievements of the industrialized world, Charles Goodyear's
vulcanization of rubber in 1839 would eventually lead to the creation of the first rubber condom
in 1844. Strips of raw rubber were wrapped around penis-shaped molds, which were later
dipped in a chemical solution to cure the rubber. With a shelf life of a few months
and being very durable, men could actually reuse these particular condoms!
In 1912, a new and improved way to manufacture condoms emerged – adding gasoline or benzene
to the rubber to liquefy it. The latex condom was officially invented in 1920, and the consumers
loved the stronger, thinner material with a shelf life of five years.
Inexpensive, easy to use, and effective at preventing the spread of certain diseases,
something the withdrawal method doesn’t really help much with, condoms are now one
of the most popular forms of contraception. However, despite the availability of some
version of the male condom throughout much of history and the ease and free-ness of the
withdrawal method, people still chose to find other methods for preventing pregnancy, some
of which were not just bizarre, but downright dangerous.
Since women were historically viewed as playing a more significant role in getting pregnant,
the number of available options for female birth control was much greater... and displayed
a much higher level of inventiveness. For example, early topical and suppository contraceptives
have included olive oil, pomegranate pulp, ginger, and even tobacco juice, which women
would smear on and/or inside their vagina as an early spermicide.
According to the oldest recorded information regarding birth control, a document that is
nearly 4000 years old- the Egyptian Kahun Gynecological Papyrus, which also happens
to be the first known medical text- women used pessaries made out of crocodile dung
and honey as a form of contraception. In hindsight, it was pretty smart to combine animal feces
with an effective antibacterial substance like honey (and indeed, it’s also thought
certain Native American tribes used honey for this same contraceptive purpose… [Simon
pauses and acts like he’s writing something down and mumbles slowly, Insert Honeypot joke
here] ;-)). Going back to the Egyptians, in addition to physically preventing sperm from
fertilizing an egg, the acidic properties of the dung may have served as an effective
spermicide. In India, elephant dung has been used in this same manner.
Another method the text describes on top of the "crocodile dung" was the use of acacia
gum, which is much less mentally repulsive to put in one’s hoo-ha, and, indeed, does
work as a spermicide. It can even be found in some spermicide products today, unlike
crocodile dung. Fast forward a few thousand years and in 1832,
Dr. Charles Knowlton popularized the method of syringe douching as a method of contraception,
and throughout the U.S., women would use his douching mixtures comprised of vinegar, zinc
sulfite and liquid chloride to prevent pregnancy. It wasn't until after 1850 that hard rubber
syringes came into play. Before that, early syringes were made out of horn, bone or pewter.
Douching kits and solutions were sold during the greater part of the 1900s. At one time,
American women painfully turned to the popular household disinfectant Lysol as a method of
contraception. From the 1930s through the 1960s, the Lysol disinfectant douche was a
top seller in feminine hygiene products. Not only did the Lysol douche later prove ineffective
as a spermicidal, but its use also led to toxic effects, such as inflammation, irritation
and burning sensations of the vagina and cervix. Getting away from Lysol, the first commercially
produced birth control pill (called Enovid-10) made an appearance on the market in 1960.
Just before the FDA approved the use of synthetic progesterone and estrogen in pill form that
works to prevent ovulation in women, the market offered "female pills" with oftentimes unidentified
ingredients or questionable herbal concoctions used to induce or speed up menstrual flow
as a way to provoke a miscarriage. As for the first use of intrauterine devices,
this dates back to the Middle Ages when Arab Bedouins would insert pebbles into the uteruses
of their camels to prevent pregnancy during long, desert journeys. The pebbles caused
a mild infection in the uterus that affected the fertilization and implantation of eggs.
As for humans, it wasn't until the 1960s in the U.S. that the IUD was an acceptable form
of birth control for women. Over time, IUDs have been made out of suture materials, coiled
metal wire, stainless steel, plastic, rubber, copper wire, and silver filaments in all proving
extremely effective at their quasi-goal keeping abilities.
Going back a bit with substances, in the mid-19th century, preparations of loose herbs, such
as pennyroyal, rue, hellebore, mistletoe, foxglove, Queen Anne's lace, bloodroot, ergot
and different mint plants, were steeped in hot water (like a cup of tea) or dissolved
in alcohol before consumption. While herbs, such as tansy and pennyroyal, may have had
a reputation for possessing abortive properties, they also "worked" by poisoning the woman.
Going back much further with the liquid birth control concoctions, it was also an unfortunate
habit of early physicians to use chemical-laden drinks that blended lethal substances (like
arsenic, mercury and strychnine) with grains, fruits and oils. Early physicians would suggest
women drink the poisonous mixtures as a way to disrupt their reproductive systems, usually
in very controlled dosages so as to prevent pregnancy without killing the woman (often
through inducing a miscarriage if a fertilized egg is present.)
For instance, Soranus, a Greek gynecologist practicing during the 2nd century A.D., told
women to drink the water that blacksmiths used to cool metal as a birth control method.
In 900 B.C., Chinese birth control experts advised women to swallow sixteen tadpoles
fried in quicksilver (mercury) immediately after sex. Successful results that came
from drinking toxic 'remedies' sometimes came with damage to the liver, kidneys and other
major organs. Some women would never again have children in the future – becoming sterile
or worse, died... in both cases, we guess the methods were indeed super effective at
preventing pregnancy... Not every oral or liquid contraceptive method
was deadly, although perhaps the effectiveness is questionable. Acidic fruits and vegetables
often played a role in early birth control. To prevent pregnancy, Arabian women would
eat mashed pomegranate mixed with rock salt and alum. During the 1400s, drinking raw onion
juice was a trick of the Italians. In 1600, the French ate cabbage after intercourse…
Not so sure about that one’s effectiveness… On the other side, one of the most effective
(and safe) liquid remedies for birth control was most likely lemon juice as a topical remedy.
Specifically, to create a physical barrier in the vagina, women would insert soft wool
soaked in vinegar or lemon juice to prevent pregnancy. Positioning half a lemon in the
vagina was also not uncommon, and serves as an example of an early form of the cervical
cap with a form of spermicide naturally baked in.
Another seemingly very effective birth control method used by the Ancient Greeks was the
Silphium plant, which is now unfortunately extinct, and became so because of its extreme
popularity for medicinal purposes, mainly for birth control. Why it became extinct
when it was "more valuable than silver" was because of failure after failure to try to
grow it away from its natural habitat of a small stretch of land in what is now Libya.
Because of the small area it could be grown successfully and the extreme demand, by the
2nd century BC, the plant went the way of the dodo. Ironically losing its evolutionary
reproductive battle because of its ability to stop reproduction in another living thing.
In the end, we've come a long way from the near 4000 year old method of crocodile dung
and honey and even the more modern method of Lysol douching, but it's surprising to
see that so many ancient methods for birth control seem to have been remarkably effective
and some, such as the basic withdrawal method and Queen Anne's Lace, are still chugging
along today as effective means of birth control. So if we take anything from this, it's that
apparently from the beginning of humans humaning, we’ve been trying to "have our cake and
eat it too" in regards to sex