From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Before the 19th century
Whether condoms were used in ancient civilizations is debated by archaeologists and historians. In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, pregnancy prevention was generally seen as a woman's responsibility, and the only well documented contraception methods were female-controlled devices. In Asia before the fifteenth century, some use of glans condoms (devices covering only the head of the penis) is recorded. Condoms seem to have been used for contraception, and to have been known only by members of the upper classes. In China, glans condoms may have been made of oiled silk paper, or of lamb intestines. In Japan, they were made of tortoise shell or animal horn.
In 16th century Italy, Gabriele Falloppio wrote a treatise on syphilis. The earliest documented strain of syphilis, first appearing in a 1490s outbreak, caused severe symptoms and often death within a few months of contracting the disease. Falloppio's treatise is the earliest uncontested description of condom use: it describes linen sheaths soaked in a chemical solution and allowed to dry before use. The cloths he described were sized to cover the glans of the penis, and were held on with a ribbon. Falloppio claimed that an experimental trial of the linen sheath demonstrated protection against syphilis.
After this, the use of penis coverings to protect from disease is described in a wide variety of literature throughout Europe. The first indication that these devices were used for birth control, rather than disease prevention, is the 1605 theological publication De iustitia et iure (On justice and law) by Catholic theologian Leonardus Lessius, who condemned them as immoral. In 1666, the English Birth Rate Commission attributed a recent downward fertility rate to use of "condons", the first documented use of that word (or any similar spelling).
In addition to linen, condoms during the Renaissance were made out of intestines and bladder. In the late 15th century, Dutch traders introduced condoms made from "fine leather" to Japan. Unlike the horn condoms used previously, these leather condoms covered the entire penis.
From at least the 18th century, condom use was opposed in some legal, religious, and medical circles for essentially the same reasons that are given today: condoms reduce the likelihood of pregnancy, which some thought immoral or undesirable for the nation; they do not provide full protection against sexually transmitted infections, while belief in their protective powers was thought to encourage sexual promiscuity; and they are not used consistently due to inconvenience, expense, or loss of sensation.
Despite some opposition, the condom market grew rapidly. In the 18th century, condoms were available in a variety of qualities and sizes, made from either linen treated with chemicals, or "skin" (bladder or intestine softened by treatment with sulfur and lye). They were sold at pubs, barbershops, chemist shops, open-air markets, and at the theater throughout Europe and Russia. They later spread to America, although in every place there were generally used only by the middle and upper classes, due to both expense and lack of sex education.
1800 through 1920s
The early nineteenth century saw contraceptives promoted to the poorer classes for the first time. Writers on contraception tended to prefer other methods of birth control. Feminists of this time period wanted birth control to be exclusively in the hands of women, and disapproved of male-controlled methods such as the condom. Other writers cited both the expense of condoms and their unreliability (they were often riddled with holes, and often fell off or broke), but they discussed condoms as a good option for some, and as the only contraceptive that also protected from disease.
Many countries passed laws impeding the manufacture and promotion of contraceptives. In spite of these restrictions, condoms were promoted by traveling lecturers and in newspaper advertisements, using euphemisms in places where such ads were illegal. Instructions on how to make condoms at home were distributed in the United States and Europe. Despite social and legal opposition, at the end of the nineteenth century the condom was the Western world's most popular birth control method.
Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, American rates of sexually transmitted diseases skyrocketed. Causes cited by historians include effects of the American Civil War, and the ignorance of prevention methods promoted by the Comstock laws. To fight the growing epidemic, sex education classes were introduced to public schools for the first time, teaching about venereal diseases and how they were transmitted. They generally taught that abstinence was the only way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms were not promoted for disease prevention because the medical community and moral watchdogs considered STDs to be punishment for sexual misbehavior. The stigma against victims of these diseases was so great that many hospitals refused to treat people who had syphilis.
The German military was the first to promote condom use among its soldiers, beginning in the later 1800s. Early twentieth century experiments by the American military concluded that providing condoms to soldiers significantly lowered rates of sexually transmitted diseases. During World War I, the United States and (at the beginning of the war only) Britain were the only countries with soldiers in Europe who did not provide condoms and promote their use.
In the decades after World War I, there remained social and legal obstacles to condom use throughout the U.S. and Europe. Founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud opposed all methods of birth control on the grounds that their failure rates were too high. Freud was especially opposed to the condom because he thought it cut down on sexual pleasure. Some feminists continued to oppose male-controlled contraceptives such as condoms. In 1920 the Church of England's Lambeth Conference condemned all "unnatural means of conception avoidance." London's Bishop Arthur Winnington-Ingram complained of the huge number of condoms discarded in alleyways and parks, especially after weekends and holidays.
However, European militaries continued to provide condoms to their members for disease protection, even in countries where they were illegal for the general population. Through the 1920s, catchy names and slick packaging became an increasingly important marketing technique for many consumer items, including condoms and cigarettes. Quality testing became more common, involving filling each condom with air followed by one of several methods intended to detect loss of pressure. Worldwide, condom sales doubled in the 1920s.