You Wouldn’t Conceive Of It: Contraception’s Bizarre History

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Contraceptive sponge anyone?

My grandfather and father were both pharmacists, with my grandfather working from 1900 to 1945, my father from 1935 to 1962 and me from 1961 to 2010, so we have covered a century or more. My grandfather was very versatile, travelling around country towns as a locum pharmacist and as an occasional emergency dentist. During his and my father’s time, women were often victims of cruel, patriarchal and legalistic policies of oppression regarding birth control and abortion.

During those early times of war, the Great Depression and poverty, women suffered a great deal, with minimal birth control available. There were condoms for the men (if they could be bothered ) and some rather weird and wonderful pessary-like contraptions for women. One of these was a strange combination of fibres forming a sponge which featured in an hilarious Seinfeld episode  where  Elaine discovered a whole carton of them at an ancient pharmacy  run by an equally ancient pharmacist. She  bought the lot (for a lifetime’s supply) and proceeded to ration them out carefully by pre-determining whether her latest partner was “sponge-worthy” or not.

Spermicide gels and creams emerged later and were applied to pessaries or diaphragms. However, they were messy and inconvenient  as well as being “cides” which means they killed living cells with unknown consequences to other living tissue.

So, in these hard times, women had large families and lived in a constant state of insecurity and poverty. Some of these contraceptives had names like “Ortho-Gynol” jelly and cream – sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place at a fancy restaurant –  “Delfen” cream and foam, “Preceptin” gel and “Rendells Pessaries”. Women who could afford it were measured up and fitted with diaphragms by their friendly GPs (gently and with warm hands we hope). They then carried them around in dinky little purses, ever-ready for their next encounter.

When I started in pharmacy, I was bewildered by all the names for condoms. The word “condom” was seldom used; instead, men would sidle in, head for the nearest male attendant and mumble out of the corner of their mouths. They’d ask for a pack of  French letters or Sheaths or Checkers or Super Checkers (for preventing the birth of super heroes?) or Wet-Chex or Check-mate (where you resign and concede defeat?) or Durex  – they had this name before the sticky-tape people pinched it, with many embarrassing consequences later on – or prophylactics or rubbers or simply ” frangas”.

These purchases were always conducted in silence; no eye contact and a large amount of stuttering and red faces for it was a shameful secret that such things existed. They were always stored in draws below the counter, so to see  today’s gaudy displays in modern pharmacies – bright colours, different shapes and sizes, weird appendages, glow-in-the-dark , scented, lubricated, singing, talking, dancing and exploding (for the true thrill-seeker) – is truly an amazing turnaround.

In the 1960’s, the next development in contraception was “the pill” (how quickly this became the accepted and iconic terminology), which I will cover in my next post.

Robert Gosstray is a retired pharmacist

Robert Gosstray

Robert Gosstray is a retired pharmacist and the resident health writer for Midlifexpress. He is the author of The Pharmacist's Secrets: Drugs, lies and money.

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