One of the most basic—and ancient—forms of birth control is the condom. Utilized by all cultures for millennia, and referred to by many colorful euphemisms, it has featured in the lives, loves, and letters of some of the most famous men in history. Shakespeare, Casanova, George Bernard Shaw, to mention only a few, all appreciated and wrote about the importance of using "preventatives." Aine Collier provides a unique glimpse into human sexual habits, customs, beliefs, and attitudes in this first history of the prophylactic device that goes back to at least the ancient Egyptians. As she amply demonstrates, the story of this humble piece of paraphernalia is full of intriguing insights into human character with all its flaws and foibles as well as many fascinating historical details:
• Clergymen of the Middle Ages left records of birth control methods that "worked."
• Columbus’s men returned from the New World infected with the "Great Pox" (syphilis) leading to the rediscovery of the condom as a disease preventative.
• Sixteenth-century Italian anatomist Gabriello Fallopio (discoverer of the Fallopian tube) should be considered the father of the modern condom; he was the first to add a pink ribbon to his sheaths, a flourish that remained standard for centuries.
• When women had few choices in the world of commerce, a significant number found a legitimate and profitable business niche producing and selling sheaths.
• During the Great Depression, while other businesses went bankrupt, condom manufacturers found themselves doing a booming trade throughout the 1930s, one of Wall Street’s few successes. Sadly, it was cheaper to pay 25 cents for a rubber than to have children.
• German gummis were acknowledged to be the finest in the world, until the Nazis made them illegal, fearing Jewish doctors had coerced innocent Germans into using them as birth control.
• AIDS has brought the condom full circle. Not for the first time in history has the littl...
Aine Collier, EdD, is an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland University College. She holds degrees in European history, international business, and English education. She has been a historian for the Hughes Flying Boat Museum and a 1932 Olympics archival project, as well as an oral historian for a series of interviews with famous figures from the peace movements of the 1930s and 1960s.
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