The Condom might be a familiar icon as the new millennium rolls over, but it's not always been the case. The 'rubber' in its modern form - a seamless sheath that rolls over the penis and prevents fertilisation by physically preventing genital contact - only appeared in the 1920s. Before then, those wishing to indulge in intercourse without producing bouncing babies or contracting such delights as syphilis or gonorrhoea had to be a little more inventive.
Traditional contraceptive methods of avoiding pregnancy - like the withdrawal method, the rhythm method, the vaginal douche, sponging or simply praying - are not exactly reliable, and even if fate smiles on you, there are plenty of sexually transmitted diseases out there to catch the unwary. But this isn't enough to stop most people from jumping into bed and playing horses, and throughout history man has tried all sorts of bizarre ways to prevent disease, parenthood, or, for the terminally unlucky, both.
Early condoms were made from whatever man could get his hands on. The Ancient Romans made condoms from goats' bladders, the Egyptians went for linen sheaths to protect from tropical diseases, the Japanese had condoms made from leather and tortoiseshell, and the Chinese wrapped oiled silk paper round the penis to prevent infection.
Development of the Condom
In 1564, the book De Morbo Gallico, a treatise on syphilis1 by the Italian anatomist Gabriello Fallopio (1523 - 1562), was posthumously published. In the book, Fallopio claimed to have invented a linen sheath which, when dipped in a solution of salt or herbs, formed a protection against the disease. The sheath fitted over the glans and under the foreskin, and was probably pretty impractical and highly uncomfortable, but it wasn't long before Hercules Saxonia described a larger sheath, still made of linen, that covered the entire penis.
The next development in the world of disease prevention was the one that gave the world the word 'condom': the sheep-gut sheath was said to have been invented by the almost certainly apocryphal Dr Condom (also known as Quondam or Cundum). The earliest proof of animal-gut condoms was discovered in excavations at Dudley Castle in the West Midlands in England, where the garderobe (the lavatory), known to have been filled in 1647, revealed five fragments of shaped animal gut. There are a number of literary references to condoms by authors such as the Marquis de Sade, Casanova and James Boswell, and condoms - which in those days were used more than once - can be seen in the backgrounds of contemporary paintings, hanging up on hooks to dry, ready for the next excursion.
For the curious, here's how to make a sheep-gut condom, according to a publication in 1824. Soak a sheep's intestine caeca in water for a number of hours, then turn inside out, and macerate them again in weak alkaline, changed every 12 hours. Scrape them carefully to remove the mucous membrane, leaving the peritoneal and muscular coats, and expose them to the vapour of burning brimstone. Then wash them in soap and water, inflate them, dry them and cut to a length of seven to eight inches. Finally, border the open end with a ribbon to tie round the base of the penis, and before use soak the condom in water to make it supple.
Condom shops soon started popping up to sell animal-gut condoms. There was a condom shop run by a Mathijs van Mordechay Cohen in Amsterdam in the 18th Century which sold homemade condoms, and by the middle of the same century the condom trade was flourishing in London. The two most famous condom sellers were Mrs Phillips and Mrs Perkins, who produced competing pamphlets to promote their shops, and Mrs Phillips also had a wholesale company on Half Moon Street on the Strand. For those who could not afford the services of Mrs Phillips and Mrs Perkins, Miss Jenny did a roaring trade in washed, second-hand condoms.
The Modern Latex Condom
In 1839, Charles Goodyear discovered the vulcanisation of rubber, the process that makes rubber - which is naturally hard when cold and soft when warm - elastic. This enabled condoms to be made from rubber, but the first rubber condoms were as thick as bicycle tyre inner tubes and had big seams down the sides, so it's unlikely they were particularly pleasant to use. Another type of rubber condom only covered the glans of the penis - known as the 'American' condom - and this is where the French name for condom, capote came from (capote also meaning 'bonnet).
Soon a new manufacturing method was developed that removed the need for a seam, creating what we regard as the modern-day condom. A large vat is filled with latex and various chemicals to make the rubber stronger, and a row of condom-shaped glass moulds hanging from a conveyor belt is plunged into the vat in a process known as 'dipping'. The moulds are dipped a number of times, with the latex dried in hot air between each dip, and the moulds rotating to ensure an even layering of rubber. When they are finished, the condoms are shot off the moulds by compressed air and water, and then they're dried, powdered and quality tested. Finally any lubricant is added and each condom is rolled up into an airtight pack before being boxed up for sale.
Since the development of this process there have been a few innovations - teat-ended condoms, spermicidal and antiviral lubrication, thinner rubber, and dubious developments like ribs and studs - but the essential product is the same now as it was in the 1920s.
The latest development in condom technology is the plastic condom, such as the Avanti from Durex. Plastic is stronger than rubber and so condoms can be made thinner, and an added advantage is that plastic condoms can be used with oil-based lubricants which would otherwise rot rubber. Plastic condoms have been available in the USA since 1995, but they have yet to take over in popularity from the cheaper latex condom.
The Condom in Society
Condoms have been through a pretty tough time over the years. When they were made from animal guts, and in the early days of handmade rubber condoms, they were prohibitively expensive, and as a result were exclusively for the rich. They were thick, uncomfortable, clumsy, and unappetising to wear and look at, and on top of that there was a general feeling that man was not supposed to interfere with the course of nature. The Church frowned on their use, and in the days when a family had lots of children to try to thwart the high infant mortality rate, they were regarded as mainly for those wishing to avoid pregnancy outside wedlock, or those who frequented houses of ill repute and wished to avoid infection. None of these activities were particularly attractive in the somewhat prudish and reticent world of the Victorians.
The First World War saw condoms distributed to troops to try to control the very high levels of venereal disease, and as the birth control movement gained a voice in the 1920s at the same time as condoms lost their seams, people began to talk about them without automatic disgust. Condoms were still far from popular - the concept of the male actually having to do anything about birth control was somewhat alien in the patriarchal society of the early 20th Century - but since they did not need to be fitted by a physician and could be bought over the counter, they were still the most popular form of birth control until the Pill arrived in the 1960s.
On top of the rather unappealing image (to a man, anyway) of having to interrupt intercourse to roll an unpleasant-smelling and slimy rubber contraption onto the penis, the reliability of condoms has always been an issue. One rumour in the early days of condom manufacture was that the law required every tenth condom to be faulty, and another said that Catholic workers in condom factories would stick holes in condoms with pins. Slowly, however, quality testing was introduced into the industry, and it was soon realised that conformance to certain standards meant bigger sales.
When the Pill arrived in the 1960s and venereal disease was tamed by the arrival of antibiotics, condoms slipped out of the public psyche and their image once again became associated with irresponsible sexual behaviour rather than contraception. However, the discovery of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) has brought condoms back into the limelight, and once again education on carrying a condom has been brought to the fore.
Meanwhile the condom will reduce the likelihood of pregnancy by up to 99%, and when combined with other contraceptive methods is one of the easiest ways to prevent a mishap. And in this modern age when unprotected sex can kill, condoms are once again a cause célèbre.