From Crocodile Dung to the NuvaRing, Birth Control Is Nothing New

Unsurprisingly, human beings have
used and experimented with various methods of birth and fertility control
since the beginning of recorded history. Furthermore, birth control’s status
as taboo, acceptable or somewhere in between the two has varied over
time and across cultures. The history of fertility control reveals that it’s a practice common to almost all times and places — and dispels the myth that birth control is a selfish demand of the modern woman.

Although the sperm cell, egg
and the intricate mechanics of reproduction would not be discovered
until the advent of tools like the microscope, it is clear that the concept of preventing the exchange of fluids was understood
and used by many ancient communities.  

According to a curriculum guide
by Kathleen London at the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute called "The History of Birth
" (and
according to common sense, too) the most common pre-medical form of
birth control was coitus interruptus, or "pulling out," which was
frowned upon by Jewish and Catholic authorities but still used. Coitus
obstructus, which involved applying pressure to block the release of
semen, was advocated by some ancient Sanskrit texts.

But as we know today, these
methods have high failure rates, and just as today we have come up with the
pill, the patch, the ring, and multiple barrier methods, it appears
that our ancestors got quite creative in their efforts to plan their families.  

Pessaries and Cervical Caps

Perhaps the most intriguing,
bizarre and possibly effective methods for birth control were pessaries.
In London’s words:  

    A pessary is a vaginal
    suppository used to kill sperm and/or block their passage through the
    cervix. The pessary was the most effective contraceptive device used
    in ancient times and numerous recipes for pessaries from ancient times
    are known. Ingredients for pessaries included: a base of crocodile dung
    (dung was frequently a base), a mixture of honey and natural sodium
    carbonate forming a kind of gum. All were of a consistency which would
    melt at body temperature and form an impenetrable covering of the cervix.  

The crocodile dung pessary,
in case you were wondering, was a specialty of the ancient Egyptians who also used various
mixtures of honey, acacia, dates, carob and cotton as pessaries
. In India, incidentally, the preferred
form of dung was that of the elephant. Another method used in India
was salt soaked in oil. Why these specific materials, you ask? Not only
were the consistencies right for creating a barrier, but some of these
materials such as dung had spermicidal properties.  Antique Pessary

Giovanni Giacomo Casanova,
of endless fame for his romantic prowess, encouraged his (many) lovers
to use squeezed lemon wedges as barriers, while rudimentary medical
versions of the cervical cap, from fitted rubber implements to sponges,
were used in England and America in the 19th century.  

Amulets and Magic Spells

Of course, there were also
less successful and logical methods. A
paper on the history of birth control at the Planned Parenthood website
(Jon Knowles is the primary author)
points out that in medieval Europe, superstition was often substituted
for even the rudimentary science.  

    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 (Lieberman,
    1973). 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.  

And beyond the spells and patients,
one of the cruder ways communities controlled population was infanticide,
often by exposure. This practice, often aimed at girls, was so widespread
that it remains a common trope in folktales, fairytales, and ancient
literature from around the world.  

The Rhythm Method

According to the Planned Parenthood
paper, "Africans and Native American women of the 17th and 18th centuries
were among the first to actually understand their fertility cycles well
enough to plan their families." Women in these societies caught onto
the idea that keeping track of their cervical mucus was one way of understanding
how fertile they were at a given time, enabling them to decide whether
or not to abstain. In the western world, it wasn’t until 50 years
ago that cervical mucus monitoring was backed up by science. In combination
with body temperature and calendar, it was integrated into the the "sympto-thermal"
method of birth control.  

As for reliance on the calendar
alone, many societies have attempted some variation on "the rhythm
method" but it rarely worked. Science did not verify the proper (but
still fallible) way to use this method until the last century.  

The Almighty Condom  

From French cave paintings
to Egyptian art, images of condoms abound in ancient, even prehistoric
times, although whether they were used for contraceptive purposes is

The oldest archaeological condom to be discovered, was made of lambskin and dated from the 17th
century in Scotland. Historians posit it was used to prevent STDs during
the English civil wars.Oldest condom  

In more Casanova facts, the
famous lothario professed to using condoms made of linen. Meanwhile,
the rubber condom became widely available in the 19th century
when rubber was mass produced by – yep, the Goodyear clan.  

However, it was still considered
"immoral" to distribute condoms to American WWI soldiers, and only
in WWII did the army deem that the health benefits of condoms outweighed
the risks.  

Taboo or Must Do?  

This is just a brief overview
of the different kinds of contraceptives used over time. But it’s
clear from their mention in several authoritative texts and widespread
use in ancient societies from India to Egypt to Europe that contraception
was not always forbidden; in fact it was often seen as necessary. Western religious
authorities have frowned on the practice as contraception appears to
run counter to biblical directives about being fruitful and multiplying – but
apparently people have been disobeying those authorities since the beginning,

London writes
one of the reasons abortion and birth control went from accepted folk-remedies
to taboo in the US coincided with the transfer of medical care from
women nurses, midwifes, and relatives to mostly-male doctors who were
more apt to disapprove of female sexuality. Population needs have also
had a strong influence on the "morality" of abortion and birth control-during
flush times; birth control has been discouraged when the demand for labor needs and
soldiers for armies is at its height. In times when survival was dicier, it may have been less of
a problem to limit childbearing. Today, as this site attests to, we’re
still engaged in a fight for recognition of the ethical and health benefits
of wide access to contraception.  

For More Information

The above information were
gleaned from the following sources, which are just at the tip
of the iceberg when it comes to exploring the history of birth
control.  Besides the methods listed above you can learn about the history
of abortifacents, douching, menstrual taboos and other traditions around
the world. And if you’re in Cleveland, be sure to visit the hall of contraception at Case Western Reserve University.  

You can view:

Yale parenting class curriculum
on history of birth control, abortion and more

Planned Parenthood’s incredibly
rich history
of birth control in America and around the globe

Audio lecture on birth control
in America

Article about the opening of museum
of contraception

Interview with curator of
museum of contraception

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Follow Sarah Seltzer on twitter: @sarahmseltzer

  • invalid-0

    I love the history and the overview. It’s excellently written, especially the “Taboo or must-do” section. I know that this isn’t quite the focus of the article, but I do have a bit of a critique.

    “Rhythm Method” isn’t the greatest term to describe the sympto-thermal method of fertility awareness, and this section is the only one that acknowledges that birth control methods can fail. Ancient and modern condoms, pessiaries, cervical caps, spermicides and hormonal methods all have failure rates. Hell, tying the tubes and snipping the vas deferens have failure rates — those suckers do regrow even when we don’t want them to.

    Keep up the great work, though. I adore RH Reality Check.

  • invalid-0

    I’m not sure what it’s going to take for the world to finally understand that the Rhythm (Calendar) Method and the Symptothermal Method HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH EACH OTHER. They are completely separate methods of contraception. The former is a statistical method which uses past cycles to predict future fertility. In general, statistical methods have a low efficacy rate, though it can be as high as 95% when women whose cycles are not sufficiently “regular” are excluded from its use. Fertility Awareness based methods, by contrast, such as the Symptothermal Method, use observation of the body’s fertility signs (primarily cervical mucus and temperature) to interpret fertility on a daily basis. These methods have an effectiveness rate approximately equal to that of the Pill, i.e. about 99%, when used perfectly. And unlike barrier methods, hormonal methods, etc, they can also be useful when one is trying to *become* pregnant. Like Michelle Bell, I realize that the focus of this post is on the history of birth control, but it is important not to perpetuate this misconception.

  • invalid-0

    This is so interesting! Thanks for all of the great resources, too!

  • invalid-0

    Planned Parenthood is really hard thing. Thank you for the information

  • invalid-0

    Well. We all went from natural contraception and fertility control to chemical industry and use of steroid hormones and estrogens.

  • invalid-0

    Wooow, oh my god, this article is just so informative!
    Thanks for posting, it was a pleasure to read this. It’s really well-written and is definitely very interesting. Gonna share some facts with my bf, he likes to know origins of different things.
    Great job!

  • invalid-0

    great article! thanks so mudh!

  • invalid-0

    For the last couple of generations birth control has been seen as ‘normal’, reliable and available. That’s the first time in history. Great article – maybe something for Wikipedia.

  • invalid-0

    Isn’t it amazing that after such a long period of development in science that the impediment to universal birth control is socio/political/religious attitudes?

  • 6zak

    In the world markets of new competitors in the name of roughly developing countries of South East Asia, Central and the Eastern Europe it would be possible to delay danger of occurrence in the USA a little back. The economy of the majority of these countries has seriously suffered from crises of the end of 1990th years, requires serious structural changes and cannot be considered as the competitor to the most powerful economy of the world. Especially favourable to Washington easing of Russia. The Soviet model of economy has appeared completely impractical though the certain goods and technologies could appear quite competitive in the American market. Any more does not represent economic threat and Japan long time being in recession. In the given region, perhaps, only China in process of the development can turn to a serious counterbalance of the USA though Beijing practically loses to Washington on all positions except population size. Besides the economic model of development of Japan and China is much weaker than the American. Can disturb not competitiveness of the American economy, and competitiveness of the American goods which have lost the appeal because of a dollar rate increase in the summer of 1999 practically to all world currencies. konferens

  • invalid-0

    really interesting blog

    thanks for writing

    jen x

  • invalid-0

    Artciculo interesting, especially the method that did not adopt the religion, it is curious how they can not accept it, is to understand these people, but everything for the sake of these crocodiles seem to me good.

  • invalid-0

    There is nothing wrong with birth control. Our country would be a lot better off I think if more women would use it instead of having baby after baby that they can’t afford.

  • invalid-0

    especially teenage mothers

  • invalid-0

    i dont think people know how much birth control has affected the current status of women. It gave them the choise….