History of condoms

History of condoms

For the modern man, the comfort of the civilized world is something self-evident: the car in front of the house, automatic doors and elevator at work, taps with infrared, sophisticated hair removal devices, espresso coffee makers, phones, airplanes, electric toothbrushes and many, many more. 

All of them are so well-established in the current lifestyle, that no one wonders how the world would have looked like if there hadn't been, for instance, the mall shopping adjustments, high voltage pillars or... the condom, this wonderful and widely marketed contraceptive product, well housed in your purse or jeans back pocket of many awaiting their chance.

Earlier generations have not been so privileged as to enjoy love with anyone without direct heirs, hassle, infections or sexually transmitted diseases. The need is, however, the one that pushes the progress from the back. And still the need made the predecessors to find solutions to these urgent problems.

Condom, in its current form, is a relatively recent invention. Though, similar protection procedures have been used since ancient times, knowing variations depending on the area, resources, nation or level of development achieved.

The oldest condom in the world, in a relatively similar form to the current one, has been found in the territory of London, Birmingham, dating back from 1640 and being ”manufactured” from fish intestines. 

Egyptians used, in exchange, condoms made from (1300 BC), to keep protected from unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases or insect stings. Chinese covered their penis with silk paper soaked in oil, and Japanese preferred diversity, relying either on the so-called “Kawagata”s or “Kyotai”s (accessories made of slim leather), either on rigid objects  ”Kabutogata”s, obtained from tortoise shells or animal horns.

Romans were treating in a manner a little more peaceful their genitals for which they were using swabs soaked in an herbal solution or condoms made from intestines and bladder of domestic animals (the goat was one of the favorites). 

Such objects were also known in Middle Age Europe, the cave paintings in France being relevant. 

In the 16th century, the spread of syphilis imposed the adoption of new measures relating the protection against the disease also called “French decay”, “French disease” or “Great Pox”. The Italian anatomist and surgeon Gabriele Falloppio, was the one who, in 1564, came up with the idea of custom sized-to-fit condoms, made from a piece of cloth moistened with a mixture of herbs and salt. His invention, presented in detail in the book “Morbo Gallico”, has known a great success in the society.  

Regarding the Anglo-Saxon origin of the name (“condom”), opinions are split in two: this was due to the etymologic parentage of the Latin term ”condus” = “container” or to a  British military doctor, named Quondam, which, around the year 1645, would be developed a ”device” made of animal intestines, specially designed to the benefit of King Carol II .  

In the 18th century, there were used both the “barrier” contraception methods made of silk, and those of intestines of lamb or goat. Secured with a ribbon on the open end of the condom in order to prevent slippage, they could be used more than once (in contemporary paintings they are sometimes seen hanging on a hook or a clothes line to dry).

Because of their high price, not everyone could afford buying condoms which were described as ”an armor against pleasure and a cobweb against infections” (as they were called by the chronicles of the time).

Lovemaking required, though, for “sacrifices” and caution, especially for those who lacked stability and monogamous inclinations. Including the famous seducer Giacomo Casanova was said he was a strong supporter of condoms made of sheep intestines, referring to them as “English redingote” or “assurance cap” and that he was needed to use with self-devotion, considering the risks he exposed himself through his meanwhile became famous adventures.

Still in the 18th century, the improvement and “spread” of condoms has experienced major progress. Amsterdam has set the pattern in this direction, followed by Hague (where a small  industrialist was selling products made of lamb bladder) and London (where advertisements of the two ladies who monopolized the market, Mrs Phillips and Mrs Perkins, consists of a series of rhymed pamphlets successful among apothecaries, tourists and ambassadors - their main purchasers). 

Another revolutionary moment in the history of condoms is due to the American inventor Charles Goodyear which, in 1839, discovered a rubber vulcanization process.

The first ”objects” made of this material were elastic, durable, they could be washed and re-used (a grotesque idea nowadays, ”progressive” yet for that time ). The thickness made them be, however, uncomfortable. In addition, they had no stability on the penis, nor enjoyed a wide market outlets, being sold only in America and Great Britain. 

A few years later, scented condoms with funny but meaningful names (“The Crocodile”, “The Voluptuous”, “The Protector Rival”), have begun to be marketed in France. 

The need for commercial visibility of the products did not delay to show up. The first advertisement was published in 1861, in “New York Times”. Later, under the Comstock Law, in 1873, the US has prohibited any promotion of “inventions” with contraceptive role.

A step towards the development of what was to become a truly flourishing industry, has been manufacturing condoms of latex, by Frederick Killian (in 1920). Much stronger, thinner and odorless, such accessories started to sell extremely well, knowing until 1940, a real rise of popularity. No wonder the leading American producers of the moment, took out on the market in that period, about 1.5 million ”caps” per day. 

After 1960, their leadership has begun to limp, the invention of the pill, the cervical cap and the diaphragm causing dramatic fall in demand. The cone of shadow in which it was convicted, was dispelled, however, in the 1980s, and the condom got back into people's attention and homes, once with the terrifying discoveries made about HIV.  

The '90s brought major improvements thanks to the use of a new material (polyurethane, which provided a new performance in the field), the condom being much smoother and twice more resistant than the one made of latex.

Today, with a very thoroughly production process and a minimum thickness of 0.04 mm / 0.0015 inch - maximum of 0.07 mm / 0.0027 inch (the record is held by a Japanese producer which limited its thickness to 0.03 mm / 0.0011 inch, meaning a size of three times thinner than a lamina of cigarette), the condom is easy to use and intensely appreciated as it provides an “ultra-discreet” protection against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.

Specialists say, however, that there is room even for better. Which is why, at present, there are carried out tests for the so-called “invisible condom”, consisting in a revolutionary gel, colorless and odorless, forming a valid contraceptive barrier, including against diseases. 

It remains to be seen if and how this will work.