vintage device birth control

Bronze pessary. A pessary in this context is a way of blocking the cervix. The gap allows a rod to be placed into the cervix to hold the pessary in place. While it could remain in place during intercourse, such intercourse could be painful. Roman, 500 BCE-400 CE.

Although the birth control pill and other hormonal contraceptive devices are modern inventions, birth control forms have been around for thousands of years.

The earliest known recordings of birth control methods date back to ancient Mesopotamia, around 1850 BC. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all had various forms of birth control.

The earliest forms of birth control, as well as abortion, were found in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia as far back as 1850 BC. Papyrus scrolls were found to contain directions on how to make birth control, using honey, acacia leaves, and also lint as a form of a cervical cap to prevent sperm from entering the womb.

Silphium, a species of giant fennel native to north Africa, may have been used as an oral contraceptive in ancient Greece and the ancient Near East. The plant only grew on a small strip of land near the coastal city of Cyrene (located in modern-day Libya) and all attempts to cultivate it elsewhere resulted in failure.

Accounts of silphium’s contraceptive effectiveness are probably greatly exaggerated. Possibly due to its supposed effectiveness and thus desirability, by the first century AD, it had become so rare that it was worth more than its weight in silver and, by late antiquity, it was fully extinct.

In ancient Greece, many plants were used as a form of birth control, including asafoetida, a close cousin of the extinct silphium. Queen Anne’s Lace was another popular contraceptive plant, and in some parts of India, it is still used for birth control today.

vintage device birth control

This type of gold wishbone stem pessary is an intra-cervical device (IUC). These tools came into use as a contraceptive towards the end of the 1800s. The flat end of the stem pessary sat against the vaginal wall with a stem protruding into the uterus through the cervix. An IUC works after conception. It stops a newly fertilised embryo implanting and growing in the lining of the uterus. IUCs were mostly surpassed by the intrauterine device (IUD). An IUD sits entirely within the uterus, reducing the risk of bacterial transfer between the cervix and uterus. This can lead to infection and sterility. 1880.

The withdrawal or pull-out method was also used by ancient peoples to prevent fertilization. Modern historians believe that most ancient forms of birth control were ineffective, except for the pull-out method.

In the late 9th to early 10th century, the Persian physician Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi documented coitus interruptus, preventing ejaculation, and the use of pessaries to block the cervix as birth control methods. He described a number of pessaries, including elephant dung, cabbages, and pitch, used alone or in combination.

Of course, the methods used before the 20th century were not always as safe or effective as those available today. Centuries ago, Chinese women drank lead and mercury to control fertility, which often resulted in sterility or death.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, magicians advised women to wear the testicles of a weasel on their thighs or hang its amputated foot from around their necks.

Other amulets of the time were wreaths of herbs, desiccated cat livers or shards of bones from cats (but only the pure black ones), flax lint tied in a cloth, and soaked in menstrual blood, or the anus of a hare.

It was also believed that a woman could avoid pregnancy by walking three times around the spot where a pregnant wolf had urinated. In more recent New Brunswick, Canada, women drank a potion of dried beaver testicles brewed in a strong alcohol solution. And, as recently as the 1990s, teens in Australia have used candy bar wrappers as condoms.

vintage device birth control

Contraceptive sponge. Sponges were widely used as contraception in the early 1900s. This contraceptive sponge is made of rubber, and such sponges – essentially a cervical blockage – were one of a range of contraceptives promoted by the Society for Constructive Birth Control, the organisation was founded by Dr. Marie Stopes (1880-1958). This sponge is in its original aluminium box and was manufactured in Britain by Elarco. 1910.

Some of the devices shown here are pessaries, which are tools for blocking the cervix. Italian adventurer Casanova writes of using a lambskin condom in the 1700s.

Abortions were also used in the 1800s in the United States. Women used drugs to induce miscarriage and also physicians, and other trained practitioners would also perform surgical abortions.

Finally, after centuries of crafty and artisanal methods, the first real technological revolution in contraceptives arrived in colonial America with the invention of vulcanized rubber in 1839.

The latex-like material was used to manufacture condoms of a much higher quality, as well as, in time, the vaginal diaphragm: a shallow cap-shaped device that grips the vaginal walls and blocks the cervix so sperm can’t enter. Contraceptive products were marketed as “feminine hygiene” products, or “Mother’s friend,” “female wash, female tonics, and female remedies.”

vintage device birth control

This condom is made of animal gut membrane, known as caecal. Caecal condoms were effective against pregnancy because animal membrane is porous to viruses. They do not reliably protect against sexually transmitted infections such as AIDS. This example was made by chemists John Bell and Croyden Limited. 1910s.

In the 1950s, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Gregory Pincus and John Rock created the first birth control pills. The pills did not become widely available until the 1960s.

In the mid-1960s, the landmark Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut overturned the ban on contraceptives for married couples. In 1972, the right to contraceptives was extended to unmarried couples.

The societal acceptance of birth control required the separation of sexual activity from procreation, making birth control a highly controversial subject in some countries at some points in the 20th century.

Birth control also became a major theme in feminist politics; reproduction issues were cited as examples of women’s powerlessness to exercise their rights.

Starting in the 1930s and intensifying in the ’60s and ’70s, the birth control movement advocated for the legalization of abortion and large-scale education campaigns about contraception by governments.

vintage device birth control

The “Prorace” brand of contraceptives was developed by Dr. Marie Stopes (1880-1958). They were distributed by the Mother’s Clinic, which opened in London in 1921. These contraceptive pessaries contain spermicides to kill sperm. They were used alone or with other contraceptives, such as the cap or diaphragm. The pessaries were manufactured by John Bell and Croyden Limited of London. The trademarked “Prorace” related to Stopes’ belief in eugenics. This widely held theory in the early 1900s argued selective breeding could remove “undesirables” from society. 1920s.

vintage device birth control

“Prorace” cervical cap. 1920s.

vintage device birth control

Rubber vault cap. Contraceptive caps are also called cervical, vault, or diaphragm caps. They are barrier contraceptives. Contraceptive caps sit over the cervix. They act as a barrier to sperm entering the uterus. This “Racial” brand of cervical cap was modified by Dr. Marie Stopes (1880-1958). The trademark “Racial” related to Stopes’ belief in eugenics. 1920.

vintage device birth control

Stem pessaries were intrauterine devices (IUDs). They consisted of a rubber, metal or glass stem attached to a cup or button to hold the stem upright and prevent it becoming lost in the uterus. This example is made of glass. Smaller plastic or copper IUDs are still used today. 1920s.

vintage device birth control

This aluminium stem pessary was made by German company Rauch. The stem held the tool in place. 1920s.

vintage device birth control

Stem pessaries are intrauterine devices (IUDs). They were a common gynecological treatment in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were also used as a contraceptive. This early intrauterine stem pessary consists of catgut loop and bone. The stem held the larger block in place. 1925.

vintage device birth control

German gynaecologist Ernst Grafenberg devised this intrauterine device (IUD) and was a popular contraceptive. Early examples were made of silkworm gut and silver wire. An IUD works after conception by stopping a newly fertilised embryo implanting and growing in the lining of the uterus. Inserted into the uterus by a physician, it could be left in place for several years. 1920s.

vintage device birth control

Oral contraceptive pills being manufactured at a factory in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England. 1955.

vintage device birth control

Soluble Spermicides. These contraceptive pessaries could be dangerous, often the spermicide used was quite harsh, leading to irritation and pain. In any case, they were supplied by the Mother’s Clinic and endorsed by Dr. Marie Stopes. Stopes founded the first of her birth control clinics in Holloway, North London. 1925.

vintage device birth control

The ‘Gamic appliance’ is a male contraceptive. It consists of a short rubber bung with a small sheath fitted over the tip. The bung was pushed down into the urethra. This is the tube leading down through the penis. Ejaculated semen was caught in the sheath. It was an unreliable form of contraception. The appliance was prone to come off in the vagina. However, makers Gamic Genetic Laboratories claimed it was designed to ‘uphold the permanence and prestige of marriage.’ 1970s.

vintage device birth control

An engraving of Jean-Jacques Casanova (1725 – 1798) (left), an italian seducer and adventurer, here blowing up a condom. c. 1754.

(Photo credit: Science Museum London / Wellcome Images / Pandia Health / Smithsonian Museum)