Medicine Macabre – Condoms

Vintage condoms. Use, rinse, repeat.

Use, rinse, repeat.

Late Winter – Onyxfeld – 1875

Ladies and Gentlemen. It is with great urgency that I must present to you a deeply concerning and frankly alarming statistic: following extensive research, I have discovered that sexual intercourse is the leading cause of the most pernicious and tormenting of maladies affecting young men and women today. No, it’s not venereal disease of which I speak, not genital warts or bone-decaying syphilis, nor infertility causing gonorrhea. No, it is in fact a far more dreadful and widespread virus. What I speak of is of course… children.

No other affliction so effectively turns perfectly productive adults into drooling, enjoyment deprived zombies. The poor wretches spill the best years of their lives into those tiny, mewling monsters and are left as hollowed out husks, only craving the sweet embrace of the grave, or failing that, some peace and quiet and a good nights sleep. Is that too much to ask?

You're having a good time with the missus and BAM, next thing you know, you're overrun.

You’re having a good time with the missus and BAM, next thing you know, you’re overrun.

But do not fear, hope is at hand. Adults may yet be left to enjoy the conjugal qualities of pushing the twin beds together and playing a rousing game of ‘Where Did Colonel John Thomas Leave His Helmet’ without the dread-curse of potential procreation hanging over their heads, thanks to the use of tried and tested reproductive blockers; the famous of which being the condom. But from where did this wondrous device emerge? Read on…

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The Art of Preventing Children has long been a priority and our cousins of antiquity utilized several ingenious methods to prevent the wanton transfer of bodily fluids. Attempts to stop fertilization were varied and ingenious, if at times a mite repulsive and even a little stinky.

Why show a picture of honey? Because it was either this or crocodile poop, the second ingredient.

Why show a picture of honey? Because it was either this or crocodile poop, the second ingredient. Google it if you must.

Ancient Egyptians, displaying a uniquely innovative spirit to such matters, created a delicious concoction of crocodile dung and honey which was daubed inside the vagina prior to intercourse. Chinese physicians prescribed a tincture of pure mercury (to be consumed in moderate quantities, else it might give the patient a bit of a jumpy tummy). Women living in the lands of Ancient Greece were advised to hold their breath during coitus (an act no doubt suited to males not seeking to impress their mates with overt displays of stamina), and were then required to bend their knees and sneeze enthusiastically. Recent eras provide us with a combination of impressive options, and while efficacy remains ever doubtful, the 17th century Canadians win the Preventative Prize with a mixture of moonshine added to dried and ground beaver testicles. Well done there.

Gabriele Falloppio - almost old enough to remember what a Trojan actually looked like.

Gabriele Falloppio – almost old enough to remember what a Trojan actually looked like.

Although the condom may originally have been devised as far back as the Roman period, it was officially brought to light by the Italian Gabriele Falloppio of Padua in written works published 2 years following his death. In De Morbo Gallico or ‘The French Disease’ (it’s always the French’s fault, isn’t it?) he describes a linen sheath to be fitted over the male glans. Perhaps not understanding the true enemy at hand, Falloppio (of Fallopian tube fame) instead saw the condom as a means to inhibit the spread of syphilis instead of the prevention of those little snot-laden trolls, children. Claiming to have tested it on precisely 1100 men, he claimed none were infected, although the sticky details of the actual testing process are sadly missing from his work.

The condoms Falloppio described were of chemically treated linen and held fast about the penis with the use of a charming little ribbon, but condoms are more commonly produced from animal intestine, sourced from sheep, calves, pigs or goats, which allows for heat and sensory transfer. The actual discomfort experienced by both parties can only be imagined, as the seams of these sheaths were hand-sewn, the membrane itself made soft with use of sulfur and lye, essentially causing the woman to just exchange one annoying burning sensation for another.

The little French fort of the town of Condom - they take all forms of protection very, very seriously.

The little fortress-church in the French town of Condom – they take all forms of protection very, very seriously.

The source of the word condom remains in some doubt. Some consider the Persian ‘Kondu’ or ‘Kendu’ as the origin, translating approximately as ‘an extended storage vessel made from animal intestine’. Some others claim etymological birthright in the French town of Condom, while others cite the Latin ‘Condus’, meaning ‘a person who stores provisions’ – again generating the kind of mental image that could put one off any number of meals – yet scholars remain undecided as to the ultimate root of the word.

Casanova - responsible for more terrible movies than Michael Bay.

Casanova – responsible for more terrible movies than Michael Bay.

Use of the condom was not consistent across social classes for much of the 17th through the 19th century, reserved mostly for the elites and wealthy of society. Giacomo Casanova, the promiscuous author, explorer and renowned lover of yore, mentioned it many times in detailed memoirs, calling it his ‘English riding coat, which puts ones mind at rest,’ presumably against the scourge of both disease and accidental progeny. It was known in rarefied circles as ‘armour’, mentioned here by the author Boswell, who describes how he:

“… picked up a strong, young, jolly damsel, led her to Westminster Bridge and there in armour, complete did I enjoy her upon this noble edifice.”

One can state with some confidence that young Boswell was neither be the first, nor would be the last to grace the monument with such, um, animated activities.

Of course, all social developments come at a cost, if you’ll excuse the pun. Religious institutions of all orientations saw the preventatives as detrimental to the ‘miracle’ of natural reproduction, seen then (as it is today) to be the ultimate destiny of all mankind. Even with the high prevalence of venereal disease during such conflicts as the American Civil war, it was abstinence, not protection, that was seen as the primary tool to prevent the spread of the sinful maladies, and the distribution of condoms was seen simply as encouragement towards further conjugal transgressions. I assume, of course, that such backward policies will be fully eradicated by our future, more enlightened descendants. Cross fingers.

It was specifically the Comstock Law of 1873 which solidified into legislation the following language, that it became illegal to sell any:

…article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever for the prevention of conception…

In the wisdom of the age, sexually transmitted disease was seen as just punishment for the crimes of the flesh. The irony of freely indulging the more deadly of the urges during times of war, that is abject and widespread violence, whilst denying the other, was evidently lost on even the sharpest of minds. As per usual, when your societal leaders have terrible sex lives or repressed childhoods, you can be damn sure they’ll make sure you do too.

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I hope you have enjoyed this brief excursion through the history of that noble little condom, whose virtue in terms of denied children simply cannot be underestimated. So take care of your French Letter, your sheath, your armor, your johnny or your little man coat (I made that last one up). And remember, they’re expensive, so always wash them out afterwards. Good quality pig intestine isn’t cheap, you know.

(Sources available on request)


Dr. J.D.T. Pembroke – surgeon, physician, alienist; these are the collected writings of the doctor’s demented journals and articles as he studies the peculiar, disturbing and strange history of medicine and macabre through the ages. You can find more of his musings and articles HERE.

On Spotify? Dr. Pembroke invites you to listen to his collection of delightfully unsettling music in his ever-expanding playlist.

You can also find him on The Book Of Faces for his whereabouts, performances and other medically related curiosities.

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